Ronroco was Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s last instrumental solo album, back in 1998. And although Ronroco was critically acclaimed, Santaolalla didn’t want to rush the process of making the next one. He let the music come to him piece by piece over the years until he felt that he was prepared to record an album. Camino turned out to be that album, and it’s a very personal one. For people familiar with Santaolalla’s name, the art of a small and personal recording goes against his current credentials somewhat. He has won two Academy Awards for his scores to Brokeback Mountain and Babel, won two Latin Grammys as a producer, and even had a songs appear in a Louis Vuitton campaign ad and in the Sony PlayStation game The Last of Us. Lately, Santaolalla has been busy scoring August Osage County, On the Road, and a stage production of Pan’s Labyrinth. His music can be heard all over the world, it seems. But Camino finds him turning inward, transforming himself into a one-man band making an album with only him in mind as an audience. And you probably have never heard a one-man band quite like Gustavo Santaolalla.
First, let’s get the fact out of the way that Camino is not Santaolalla going it alone 100 percent. Aníbal Kerpel provides “additional keyboards” and Gabe Witcher of the Punch Brothers plays the fiddle on “Vamos”. Apart from that, it’s all Gustavo Santaolalla—from the ronroco to the guitar, guitarró, cuantro, tres, bass, keyboards, pipes, bass harmonica, and percussion. And Santaolalla won’t admit to having mastered every single one of these instruments. “I love playing instruments that I don’t know how to play or am not familiar with,” he points out in Camino‘s press release. “The music becomes minimalist because of my limited knowledge.” Anyone who follows musical trends close enough knows that there is a big difference between something being “simple” and something being “simplistic.” “Minimalist” is comparable to “simple,” and that pretty much describes Santaolalla’s novice skills while recording the soundtrack to Babel. Camino continues to gingerly walk the line between delicate simplicity and the inherent beauty of the ornate. It has the air of music you may have heard constructed before, but it’s the fresh air that you get when you step outside. True, there have been many sunny days with perfect weather. But just because you’ve experienced hundreds of them doesn’t mean that you get tired of them.
Camino starts off intuitively. “Alma” slowly spins in a predictable pattern that is more important for setting the stage than being a track that grabs you by the collar. Santaolalla’s approach to his stringed instruments is a soft one, likely reinforced by choices made at the mixing desk. And as “Alma” gently rolls you out of bed, the heavy lifting can start with “Vamos”. A low, sonorous instrument steps in, giving three ascending notes underneath the figure. This ought to be experience through either nice headphones or a sound system at home that can handle a healthy dose of volume. “The Maze” is Santaolalla’s answer to the unasked question “When are you going to get atonal?” With a plunked tense harmony accompanying an intentionally misplaced counter figure and percussive finger scrapes, the anxiety is palpable. It’s as if you, together with Santaolalla, can’t get out of the maze.
Fortunately for the anxiety-prone, “The Maze” is brief. Caminos is a pretty brief album as well, with 13 tracks giving us only 35 minutes. That doesn’t really feel like enough time for a piece like “Requiem” to feel like a requiem. If there were one criticism I would give to Camino is that it deserves a longer running time. Not that much longer, mind you, but “The Journey” feels like it wraps up just as it was beginning. But the fact that he placed a song named “Returning” last (used in the aforementioned video game The Last of Us) implies that Gustavo Santaolalla will revisit this format in the future. Hopefully by then we can get a full course meal instead of thirteen very nice appetizers.