[25 May 2009]
I liked The Field’s debut, From Here We Go Sublime. OK, I liked it a lot. The feeling it engendered, Swedish wunderkind Axel Willner’s debut, was difficult to describe in words. Critics talked about a “constantly expanding” sound, or the idea of “endless crescendos”. What you felt, as a casual listener, was this strangely emotional 4/4 techno. Out of scraps of other songs, mostly unrecognizable, Willner had constructed these soundscapes of enormous power.
From Here We Go Sublime had a particular quirk that listeners came to love, but which it was a surprise to learn was a mistake of his recording process. That is, the volume abruptly racheted-up from time to time – usually in the middle of a thematic idea. This happened because the simple, decade-old computer program Willner used to compose his songs couldn’t handle the layers he added – and, since he recorded it all in one live take – he ended up with these odd volume shifts. Eventually, they came to seem natural to the songs’ larger rebuttal of dance’s natural climax-driven structure. Willner dropped us in, unceremoniously, in a new sonic world, and left us to piece together the rest.
Though the Field has a recognizable pieced-together sound on his new album, there’s much less of that chanced-on sublimation. Instead, Willner has fun with bigger chunks brought in from other genres. This is heard clearest on the title track, which takes a right-turn midway through to wander, for a while, into jazz-improvisation. John Stanier, percussionist for Battles, gets a minute to show off, with spectacular results – and yes, it’s truly a breakdown. Don’t hear that too often in the Field’s other work. Either way, Willner’s way of achieving his trance-like state is not new – he uses loops of samples (mainly wordless vocals) and repetitive, minimal percussion – but somehow the tools remain secondary to the potent atmospheres they create. The samples are, we’re told, unlicensed clips from quite recognizable artists and songs; the catch is that they’re milliseconds long. This is truly sound construction from the atomic level up.
Only this time, instead of pulling sounds straight from the computer, Willner’s found a rich source in live instrumentation. Talk’s been about the album’s “organic” feel, primarily driven by the collaboration, on the album’s title track, with Stanier. But ‘organic’ shouldn’t be an excuse for ‘obvious’. 90% of the time, Willner’s all over the difference, making the most of newly-expanded textures with obvious pleasure. “The More That I Do” has the propulsion of the best stuff from From Here We Go Sublime but a much richer texture, as if it’s a bucket that’s been heaped full of sound. Only once does he slip further towards pop than he ever has. It’s on “Everybody Got to Learn Sometime”, his cover of British group the Korgis’ song, which was also previously transmuted into a Top 40 dance song by Baby D. Willner’s version refutes that version completely, transforming the refrain to a wistful, melancholic hook. But the wide-sky, ambient trance of the meat of the song has a little of that ‘chilled compilation’ feel with less of the cerebral payoff than previous work.
But so much of the rest of the time, the Field’s music effortlessly takes your breath away. “I Have the Moon You Have the Internet” is a leisurely opening, and the build-to-climax is unusually expected. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t been listening to that much techno recently, but it still somehow sounds fresh. Part of the charm’s in each song’s patience, and this opening’s a sterling example. Yesterday and Today even recalls Dan Deacon, now and then – not just in the warm, woods-and-open-sky aesthetic; but in the drop-off at track’s end, wandering into a quiet, rootless coda.
As with most of the Field’s music, Yesterday and Today works better through headphones than in the club. You’d get too many people transfixed, just staring out into the middle distance. But that’s what makes it such a powerful experience to listen to on your own. So cue up “Sequenced”: let its static alternation and its basic bass and hi-hat drift through you and out across an icy landscape. It’s the pulse of 2009.