Eight years removed from Ray of Light, six years removed from his last proper solo album, and this is all William Orbit can come up with?
Regardless of what he does for the rest of his career, it would seem that William Orbit’s name is destined to be inexorably linked to the career-altering renaissance that Ray of Light provided for Madonna. Orbit was the man behind the music for that album, putting a synthetic-yet-vital spin on Madonna’s brand of pop music that may not have necessarily been groundbreaking, but was at least exciting. It’s an album on which Orbit showed remarkable range, fluctuating expertly between sweeping orchestral touches (as on “Frozen”) and bubbly, euphoric techno (as on “Ray of Light”), hitting most of the ground in between the two while he was at it. Orbit responded to his not-entirely-unexpected overnight fame with Pieces in a Modern Style, a solo concept album that took classical pieces and reinvented them in a modern electronic setting. The result was an album with a pronounced dearth of beats that may have strayed a bit too close to new age for Orbit’s newfound audience, but at the very least held an interesting concept while finding a way to squeeze melancholy out of synthetics.
The time since Pieces in a Modern Style has been largely quiet for Orbit, save a few high profile production turns for U2 and Pink. Now, we have Hello Waveforms, which attempts to answer the question of just what Orbit’s been up to all this time.
The answer to that question, then, would be: Not much of anything, apparently.
There’s no denying that Hello Waveforms is nice. It is nice. It’s like musical Zoloft, actually. It’s white fluffy clouds, kittens and ponies, rainbows and pots o’ gold. It won’t offend anyone. You can play it in your office, and that cranky middle manager who won’t get off your back about the expense reports you still haven’t turned in might smile and ask what you’re listening to today, rather than just tell you to shut it the hell off as he usually does. It’s that kind of album, one that would probably bring a week of sunny days if we shot it into the atmosphere and allowed it some control over the weather.
There are instances where an artist can get away with these sorts of pleasantries—juxtaposing the prettiness with the underlying threat of darkness is one, displaying some technical virtuosity another, even hiding some inventive examples of melodic counterpoint in the mix rewards repeated listens. None of those are found on Hello Waveforms.
Brief glimmers of hope are offered—“Sea Green” opens the album on a hollow, repeated, four-note synth melody that gets crushed all too quickly by a vaguely adult-contemporary guitar line, signaling the transition from mysterious to mind-numbingly pretty. The welcome, dubby bassline of “Who Owns the Octopus?” (admittedly an excellent title) is canceled out by out-of-place oohing and ahhing and a beat that barely progresses past the old “lite rock” setting on 80s Casio keyboards. “Spiral” sounds like a decent enough slow-burning R&B crooner until you realize that the voices of Sugababes and the sorely underutilized Kenna don’t actually say anything, really. They’re just there to give the illusion of variety, even as the song itself fits into the template of the rest of the album (Slow, simplistic beats? Check. Banal, clichéd melodies? Check.) quite perfectly. One would even be tempted to give Orbit credit for the one memorable melody on the album, that of “Humming Chorus”, until one realizes that it’s been lifted from Madame Butterfly.
Those who became familiar with Orbit in the days of his early Strange Cargo series will find little to latch onto here. That was an adventurous Orbit, one willing to toy with genre experiments and different sounds, one willing to pick up the tempo a bit for the sake of making his listener feel something. Hello Waveforms is the work of a different William Orbit, one content with his current state of fame, one making records for the generation of Madonna fans who have mellowed out in the interim between Ray of Light and the present day. The Orbit of old could make us feel; Hello Waveforms is aural anesthesia.