Matthias Grübel, aka Phon˚Noir, evidently subscribes to the “do one thing and do it well” theory of music-making. His debut album, 2006’s Putting Holes Into October Skies, was a deliberately ponderous, downbeat combination of guitar-strumming, navel-gazing, and laptop electronics. It was delicate, often pretty, and just as often insufferable. For this follow-up, the Berlin-based Grübel hasn’t varied the formula. But he has honed it, focused it, and improved it to the point where The Objects Don’t Need Us, while about as portentous as its title suggests, is a much more enriching, engaging listen than its predecessor.
Musically, the majority of The Objects Don’t Need Us is exquisite. The entire album has a rustic, desolate, sundown feel. Wisely, Grübel lets his guitar playing come to the forefront. The delicate, gently-strummed acoustics and tremolo electrics shimmer like mirages on a desert road. The pitter-pattering of computers is relegated to the fringes of the mix, careening from ear to ear as if made nervous by the more traditional guitars. The effect is at times reminiscent of Angleo Badalamenti’s work for David Lynch: haunting and, as Grübel’s working name would suggest, more than a little noir-ish.
Opener “The Figures Are Moving” begins with a wobbly, distorted flute sound making its way through syncopated, pinging percussion, bringing to mind the pretty/ugly, post-jazz experiments of latter-day Talk Talk. “A Different Kind of January” is the album’s prettiest, most affecting track. That shimmering guitar ekes out a weary melody before an urgent choral sample and gorgeous, harpsichord-like sound take over. All the while, the little electronic noises are poking and prodding around the background like a space-age music box, but they’re never as obnoxious or incongruent as they could be on Putting Holes Into October Skies. Imagine being caught out on an open Arizona road in scorching heat, slowly dehydrating and burning up. This is your soundtrack.
The rest of The Objects Don’t Need Us pretty much follows the same template. “Invisible at Last” gets a little bit of an electronic pulse going and feature some charmingly amateurish backing vocals from Marie-Sophie Kanske, while “Climbing Up That Hill” could almost be called upbeat, the way it flirts with major-keys and a nice little xylophone melody. Finally, on the uptempo “My Paperhouse on Fire”, an actual snare sound is heard. Actually, it’s creatively layered to sound more like a drum-and-bugle corps.
The mellow, autumnal approach does wear a little thin over the album’s duration, in part due to its primary weakness, Grübel’s voice. He doesn’t sing so much as mumble in a low near-whisper, the way Robert Smith does on some Cure tracks. He sounds like he’s on the verge of tears or mental exhaustion on just about every track, and his lyrics are predictably downcast and introspective. Declarations like “Tomorrow is my favorite day” and “We still miss the future we once had” are typical of Grübel’s tendency to wallow in miserablism. When the music is doing such a good job of establishing a melancholy, even hopeless, atmosphere, why push it to the point of overkill or self-parody?
Ultimately, The Objects Don’t Need Us is one of those albums that would be much more effective were it instrumental. The pair of near-instrumentals here only support that claim. Then, on final track “Gullholmen”, something totally unexpected happens. Grübel actually sings! And his voice, though as vulnerable as always, is full of real emotion. And, just as surprisingly, that emotion is hopefulness. “The smoke will clear when morning breaks,” he sings, “And we can walk from here”. The guitar noise to shoegazer proportions, a violin probes the atmosphere, and, somewhere, a second-hand ticks.
It’s a shame that Grübel had to wait until the last track on his second album to let his vocals be as expressive as his music. But it bodes well for album number three. In the meantime, The Objects Don’t Need Us is recommendable in its own right, especially if you’re in the mood for some serious wallowing.
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