Both blazingly intellectual and wildly artistic, Theory of Ice offers entry at any point you come into contact with it.
I remember feeling like a genius — a bonafide Ph.D. scholar — in whichever elementary grade it was where we were taught about the water cycle. Realizing that there is no beginning or end, that water always is water that’s just in a different form, place, or time, unlocked something in my mind. I was thinking in a new gear and could no longer go back to the time before knowing that water, ice, and steam were fundamentally the same thing. The funny thing is, even though I understood this information to be important, I still couldn’t fully comprehend it, let alone extrapolate it to an existential understanding of the meaning of life itself.
Listening to Theory of Ice makes me feel like that kid again. Both blazingly intellectual and wildly artistic, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s record flows freely into my subconscious. From a foundation of Indigenous storytelling and traditions, spoken-word poetry, and her 2020 book Noopiming: The Cure for White Women, the album’s ecological imagery floods both my waking and sleeping thoughts, firing neurons long dormant and making synapses never before connected. “The world is amassed with details,” writes Steven Lambke in an introductory essay about the album’s origins and creation, and that’s never been a truer — and yet wholly insufficient — way of summarizing the depth of power at the confluence of Betasamosake Simpson’s art, activism, and academics.
There is much to learn from “Failure of Melting,” an impressive artistic achievement that dissolves poetry, prose, music, and mood into a collective pool that ripples outwards as if fed by a hidden source of continuous inspiration bubbling up from below its surface. The song feels like an accounting of every way in which the natural and spiritual worlds are connected, the delicate dance of humanity over nature’s surface. “The ice breathes and gives in / The lake runs out of option,” she says with a tender exhale before circling back to add, “The ice breathes / and there are / all kinds / of ways / to fail.” In Betasamosake Simpson’s words, one can infer that, even in failure, there is room to grow, learn, and begin again, but that capability is finite. “Everything we tried to grow / this year has died,” she sings on “The Wake,” a mournful lullaby that reminds us we are all but one small, linear part of a much grander sequence of transformation and change; a brief stop on the route of a consciousness that’s beyond our comprehension.
Or maybe it’s not all that unfathomable. Maybe it’s so simple that we fail to recognize just how rhythmic and balanced the natural world is because, as a species, we’ve stopped listening to the world around us and focus too much on our inner dialogues. I was struck dumb by the line “And the road only goes one way / and you can’t get lost,” on “Surface Tension” (a duet with John K. Samson). It is certainly not a revelatory statement in and of itself, but amidst the sparkling and sonically pleasing musical arrangement by collaborators Nick Ferrio, Jonas Bonnetta, Jim Bryson, and Betasamosake Simpson’s sister Ansley Simpson, its significance is deafening. Each of us travel through life on this earth in the same direction, all headed towards the same destination, even though our paths differ. It is but one example of many moments on Theory of Ice that encapsulates and communicates proud spiritual truths through speech, singing, sounds, tradition, and history.
Maybe my theory on Theory of Ice is too reductive; perhaps it’s broad enough to know its significance but not intellectual enough to fully “get it.” That said, maybe that’s the point of the record: to find my own way into a cycle that has no start or end, to rotate through states of consciousness, understanding, confusion and contemplation. Theory of Ice offers this kind of entry at any point you come into contact with it. “We made a circle / and it helped,” goes “Head of the Lake,” a finale that serves as both an invitation to experience this world from a new perspective and tradition, and a reminder that, no matter how strong and solid a circle may be, stability is not a given.