Years of collaborations with Kanye West leveraging his voice better than he’s ever, Colin Stetson and James Blake (whose “Measurements” is the inspiration for “_ _ _ _45_ _ _ _ _”), has all paid off in Bon Iver’s most interesting album (by virtue of not being another (emotion-less, over-sung) folk sleeping pill; Anohni achieved something similar this year). A lot of details worth savouring, in order of when they come: the floating “It might be over soon” sample in the opener; the Yeezus-inspired rumble of “10 (Death Breast)” (recalling “Black Skinhead”); the pinging piano and the massive drums in the climax of “666 (Upsidedowncross)” (though I think the squelchy figure was a bad choice, a randomly grotesque element thrown in to remind us of how purposefully different all of this is); how both Colin Stetson and the Toys’ ineffable “A Lover’s Concerto” (?????!) are broken down and then stretched sadistically into completely unrecognizable elements on “21 (Moon Water)”: And yet, the successes are mostly those details; songs as a whole are modest successes, and comparisons to Kid A are eye-rolling: conventional stuff like “8 (circle)” and “00000 million” still appear (I s’pose Kid A still had “Optimistic,” but that was genuinely a great song). Kid A has fallen from my favourite album of 2000 to likely third if not fourth place, but that album was, for me and for a lot of people, an exceptionally beautiful album and a gateway into other genres of music (“Treefingers” to “Rhubarb” so to speak). This one isn’t exceptionally beautiful (Bon Iver’s voice still sounds soulless, and manipulating it hasn’t exactly corrected that issue, even though there was a possibility that it would have), and if it leads anyone to anywhere, it’s only to Bon Iver’s next.
In the past few years, I would have easily tooted Burial as one of the best electronic artists: an auteur with a distinctive and inimitable and sometimes ineffable sound, Burial created lush soundscapes built out of rain, cigarette smoke, reflected moonlight off skyscrapers and refracted sounds out of London nightclubs. It’s a damn shame: I had almost completely forgotten about him in the past few years as he had been relatively silent since 2013’s Rival Dealer, which saw him bringing even more sounds into his palette: the synth-pop of “Hiders”, the sitar-esque keyboard of “Come Down to Us”, the breakneck highway chase of “Rival Dealer”. Since then, we’ve had the under-discussed “Lambeth”, an unreleased track that appeared on the last installment of Hyperdub compilations of 2014, the utterly forgettable “Temple Sleeper” single of 2015, and “Sweetz”, a collaboration with Zomby that sounded like two different jigsaw puzzle pieces forced together by an annoying vocal sample.
This one arrived confusingly, apparently accidentally being available in Black Friday and being listed online as an official release soon after. Regardless of the case, it’s a bit of disappointment given how monumental Kindred and Rival Dealer seemed — two EPs that I will forever argue were better than Untrue: bringing in new sounds but maintaining the atmosphere, yet doing it shorter and tugging at the heartstrings all the while (the voice going, “I used to belong,” in “Ashtray Wasp”; Lana Wachowski’s speech at the end of “Come Down to Us”, shifting the meaning of the entire package). This one brings in one new sound (more on that later) and does it shorter, but the atmosphere and emotional heft are both by-the-numbers Burial. This follows straight down to the very sounds being used: the androgynous, pained vocals throughout “Young Death” and its coda are all stuff we’ve heard before from him and done better. And the same goes to almost everything about “Nightmarket” (including the stop-starts) except once the synth fragment comes alive halfway through (at the 3:33 mark, after a sample goes, “Come with me”), which easily the best moment of the package. The only other sonic element worth noting is the slippery beat that drives most of “Young Death”. And yet, none of that is enough for a 13-minute package, which makes this easily his least note-worthy release.