[13 October 2006]
Virtually every music career that lasts more than a couple albums has a few consolidation points, periods where earlier approaches are revisited and old sounds are recaptured. It’s a natural part of the process, if one that is often less exciting (but also less risky) than constantly forging ahead into virgin territory. Radiohead did this when they veered back towards more traditional rock with Hail to the Thief. The Eels did this when E veered back away from traditional rock, on Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. The phenomenon occasionally overlaps with the “comeback album”, that disc which desperately wants to undo recent memory and leap to an earlier point in history, for better or worse (think Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point for better, Weezer’s attempted unwriting of Pinkerton on the Green Album for worse). Somewhere on the spectrum lie the last couple Beck albums, inexplicably, though competently, travelling back in time through Odelay and Mellow Gold. In short, everyone does it, and there’s nothing (necessarily) wrong with it.
Enter the new Squarepusher album, Hello Everything, which seems to most directly follow from the 1999 effort, Selection Sixteen. Both albums are crisp, precise exercises in pairing jazz tendencies with rapidly skipping drum and bass programming, highlighting, in the process, Tom Jenkinson’s virtuosic skills with a bass guitar. Though the above could serve as a brief mission statement for much of the earlier Squarepusher catalogue, what’s more telling is the reduction and refocusing from Jenkinson’s most recent efforts Gone, here, is the glitch deconstruction outlined over much of 2001’s Go Plastic, or the hit-or-miss noise sculpture of 2002’s Do You Know Squarepusher?, or the ultimately failed sloppy live experimentation of 2004’s Ultravisitor, or even the often-compelling vocal studies spread throughout all three of those works. Instead, Hello Everything steps back from all of this relative terra incognita and refocuses on melody, in many places improving even on the careful balance of future sheen and raw acid showcased on sister-album Selection Sixteen.
This newly-honed melody structure is in full effect on album highlight “Planetarium”. The track opens simply with basic amen-break riffing, but ramps gradually up through layers of sub bass, rolling classical-quoting piano, and a lurching, squelching synth part that, from the sound of it, may have been triggered live from some kind of a MIDI bass device. Then everything steps up again in unison—the chord sequence turns faster and darker, rivaling the dramatic tension some of the best Plaid arrangements in recent memory, the synth-maybe-bass line becomes somehow both twitchier and more purposeful, and stiff, high pads move in to support the rest. Almost equal in all of these aspects is the apparent flagship song, “Hello Meow”, which opens the album with a similarly strong, simply evolving structure, but which also features a bass guitar solo showcasing all of Jenkinson’s formidable skill at navigating the rhythmic cages he constructs for himself without any need for a sequencer.
If there’s a drawback to all of this attention to melody, perhaps the most consistently strong of any album in the Squarepusher catalogue, it’s that the trademark Squarepusher rhythm-programming has been toned down to give other elements some space, lending most songs an oddly restrained feel compared to past standouts. Both of the aforementioned highlight tracks feature a relatively un-processed use of the amen break, allowing the breakbeat room to carry its intended rhythm without anything close to the flurry of cuts and skips we’ve come to expect, while melody lines carry most overt variation. In this way, there’s some similarity to Venetian Snare’s epic Rossz Csillag Allat Szuletett, which also eschewed most percussive sound variation (though not programming complexity, in that case) in favor of pure amen to better display the rich orchestral arrangements. The refocusing seems to serve its purpose effectively, but it’s nonetheless difficult not to wish that the drum lines would really let loose, if only for select moments. Fortunately, later songs like “Plotinus” and “The Modern Bass Guitar” lend some balance when their percussion tracks are allowed considerable more leeway and noise. The latter piece is especially notable for serving as one of the few bridges to the best aspects of the rough, messy experimentation of Ultravisitor and Go Plastic. A couple low-key jazz riffs and studies in deep ambiance round out the tracklist and offer a little more variation.
Hello Everything, by generally smoothing out and easing away from the tumultuous creative vitality of the last few Squarepusher releases, may at first glance seem like a step back, but first glances can be deceptive. Instead, this is a promising album, one which refines prior approaches and shows what Jenkinson has learned and incorporated into his arsenal in the last few years, presented in a careful, focused package. It’s Jenkinson at his most accessible, but also at his most meticulous. And by providing a convenient point of entry for new listeners and reentry for wayward old listeners, such an album can also serve as a launching point for the next round of envelope-pushing and experimentation. As such, Hello Everything seems aptly named: Jenkinson emerges, mole-like and blinking, from the studio to greet the world with a set of songs that prove his classic Squarepusher sound to be as viable now as ever, reaffirming and relaunching of a career that helped define electronic music at the end of the last decade, and now promises to continue doing so into the next.