[13 May 2010]
One would think that downtempo electronic music and psychedelic textures would go hand-in-hand. One would think that the relatively restrained beatwork would make for the use of creative layering of sounds, for room to fit all manner of instruments above those beats. One would think that vocalists, given room to work on top of these tapestries, would pull every trick out of their bags to offer interesting counterpoints to the layers beneath. One would think that James Lavelle, energized by the recruitment of a new collaborator in Pablo Clements, would be able to put these pieces together and create an album as cohesive as any that have been graced with the UNKLE name.
As is too often the case when such expectations are brought to a project, in the case of UNKLE’s latest release Where Did the Night Fall, one would be wrong.
Where Did the Night Fall is a tedious, soupy mess of an album that starts out at one intensity level and stays there for 45 minutes, then bumps upwards a bit, and finally falls off a cliff in the album’s best moment. Psychedelia is a reason to use guitars and drown them in acid wash, production that renders the organic instruments indistinguishable from the electronic ones. The beats are too quick for the mellow mood being offered, resulting in a weird sort of disorientation that leaves the listener expecting majesty and receiving tedium. There is a veritable menagerie of guests involved on the album, which makes the too-uniform sound all the more surprising, but it seems that Lavelle and Clements were simply too busy adhering to their vision to allow the guests to shape the sound of the album at all.
Take “Joy Factory”, for example, which features Autolux. Rather than get any of the dirty, messy sound that Autolux’s most interesting moments tend to feature, we get this repetitive, lightweight thing with monotone vocals, bass work buried to almost inaudible levels, and a looped rhythm track that sounds like it could be interesting if it just had a little punch. The whole production sounds like it’s underwater, and that rhythm work just rolls along instead of providing the cutting backdrop that it could. Gavin Clark shows up a couple of times, and his voice seems like more of an excuse to add more guitars to the mix than an actual distinctive element to either of his songs. He’s so affected that he sounds almost like Lavelle himself, who shows up for vocals on a deep cut called “Ablivion”—so much so, in fact, that you wonder why Clark bothered to show up, not to mention why Lavelle and Clements felt the need to include him.
Many of these disappointing tracks start out with some promise, but end up caught in the same mess as the rest of them. Vocalist Elle J finds herself at the front of two of these, as a matter of fact. “On a Wire” starts off with a quick beat and the promise of some energy, but her intentionally lethargic vocal kills the energy; alternately, she has all the swagger that the dirty intro of “The Runaway” would seem to imply she’d need, but Lavelle and Clements are so busy muddying up the mix that we hardly notice. “Natural Selection” is catchy in an unassuming, lighthearted way, but again, it’s so busy and soupy as to eventually become as much a chore as anything else.
The only track that truly shines throughout Where Did the Night Fall is the last one, a sparse, beatless wonder in the tradition of Psyence Fiction‘s classic “Rabbit In Your Headlights” with Mark Lanegan playing the part of Thom Yorke. Lanegan sounds like Tom Waits an hour after last call, the contemplation and regret plain in his wavery rasp, coming up with the perfect coda to the lost night at the clubs it follows.
Perhaps this was the intent of Lavelle and Clements. If the entire point of Where Did the Night Fall was to document a long night out only to end with the vague regret of wondering what you just spent all that time doing, well, maybe they succeeded. As an art piece, it can be appreciated. As an album of music that people are supposed to listen to and enjoy over and over and over again (which is what it sounds like the intent really was), not so much. It’s too many notes; for an album that purports to be so propulsive, it really needs to lighten up.