Press releases are really only useful to us these days in an incidental way. We can wiki you, find reviews, fan sites, whatever—all the press release does is tell us what you think you sound like, what face you want to be presenting to the world. The one sheet for Thomas Brinkmann’s new When Horses Die proclaims that Brinkmann “is one of the leaders in the on-going German-born study of isolationist dub-inspired techno.” Look at that sentence! There’s just so much to love there. The concept of an “on-going German-born study of isolationist dub-inspired techno” makes me giggle a little to myself in delight (don’t get me wrong, I love ambient dub, Pole, Basic Channel, Deepchord, etc etc—but the phrasing here is so teasingly stern). Between that and the plain black cover of the album (not to mention Brinkmann’s own gapped-out expression on the one sheet), you’d expect something dour and dire.
In truth, it’s more that Brinkmann has moved from his groundbreaking, still astonishly effective ‘remixes’ of Mike Ink and Richie Hawtin (accomplished using a two-armed turntable—as described here in fascinating detail) to Brian Eno’s Another Day on Earth. Anyone remember that one, from a few years back? Eno’s fabled return to ‘song-oriented’ work, it was a muddled (if occasionally effective) crossbreed between his old work and the pristine digital/ambient soundscapes he’s arguably better known for now that was sufficiently unlike either in effect that most people just left it alone. When Horses Die features Brinkmann’s incredibly Germanic voice on every track except for the closing “40,” and when he first starts softly croaking over the gentle piano of “Words” you might wonder why he’s bothering.
Luckily that croak is an affectation, presumably chosen in order to make his repeated reference to “in a manner of speaking” resonate more with the listener. It’s also, and this is I think the key to When Horses Die, kind of amusing. For a record that seems ultraserious from cover down to song titles (“Words,” “Birth & Death,” “Souls”), the actual music is far more whimsical. Near the end of “Words” Brinkmann slowly forces out the line “so in a manner of speaking I just wanna say that I like you,” and the conflict between the nonchalance and the parched gulping of his vocals makes every other song about having a crush on someone just seem foolish. When on “Birth & Death” he has the fake drums start flailing away at the cymbals just as he pronounces, gravely, on “how sweet it would be to die,” it’s freaking hilarious.
I don’t think I’m being sarcastic here; Brinkmann has long been a bit of a prankster, and while parts of When Horses Die sound like parodies of dourness, he always gives you enough sonic interest to keep you listening. Which lets him slip in a couple of stunning moments where suddenly he goes from making these odd sort-of-rock songs that feint with seriousness to actually getting serious; the fact that he keeps these moments in reserve rather than remaining po-faced throughout just makes them more powerful.
Many of them come later on; the softly numbing pulse of “2suns” slips under your skin and leaves you open to “Uselessness,” where Brinkmann’s really comes into his own: Not only are his vocals here more about their texture, language reduced to a series of wet clicking sounds, but he manages the difficult and surprisingly worthwhile trick of turning the first Pan.American album into something approaching pop music. The title track, which like many songs here takes its lyrics from a poet rather than Brinkmann himself, isn’t quite as effectively sonically as “Uselessness.” But as Brinkmann wistfully semi-croons about wishing you were here, it actually makes a convincing case for him as a synth-pop figure rather than a minimalist techno one.
Of course, if you were already a fan it may be hard not to wish he was sticking to his strengths, and like Another Day on Earth this feels transitional, tentative, as if Brinkmann is playing around the the idea of song-based records. There’s enough here to like on its own merits, especially if you share Brinkmann’s sense of humour, but it’ll be interested to see if he’s able to follow it up—or is even interested in doing so.