Devonté Hynes is a man who makes music as habitually as most people listen to it. Recently turned 24, the American-born, British-raised, returned-to-America multi-instrumentalist has already etched a variegated litany of notches into his career bedpost. After first making his name as one third of fleeting dance-punks Test Icicles, he’s spent his time creating a robust debut album under the Lightspeed Champion pseudonym, collaborating with a generous and varied roster of musicians (including the Chemical Brothers and most recently Basement Jaxx), penning songs for TV talent show finalists, performing cult film scores, and embarking upon another solo project (this time under the alias Blood Orange), all the while giving away an iTunes-fattening glut of free songs over the Internet. Recently, he revealed he has around 50 bootleg releases prepped for airing. Hynes, you can be sure, loves music.
On approaching the second full-length product of what comes closer than anything else to constituting Hynes’s day-job, it is worth bearing in mind not just the size of this output, but also its kaleidoscopic miscellany. That the adopted New Yorker has covered ground so broadly removed as the ADD-affected racket-raising of his breakthrough band, the reprisal of Cat Stevens’s Harold and Maude soundtrack, and the bass-heavy throb of “My Turn” — the brilliant result of his recent alliance Basement Jaxx — should suffice to demonstrate a diversity of interest that inflects Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You! more than just a little. Without this awareness, the album could seem scattershot in its approach. Across a 50-minute running time, Hynes’s hands are turned toward grooving funk-pop (“Marlene”), a piano etude (“Goodnight Michalek”), swooning baroque pop (“I Don’t Want to Wake Up Alone”), operatic choir-backed grandiosity (“The Big Guns of Highsmith”), and ukulele-driven love songs (“There’s Nothing Underwater”), while expanding upon the dewy-eyed melancholy pop that has become his expected modus operandi.
While Lightspeed Champion’s debut, Falling from the Lavender Bridge, showed signs that Hynes was inclined towards a fingers-in-all-pies approach to making music, the record was ultimately all pegged together by Mike Mogis’s over-sweetened production and by the country twang which reared its unsightly head at every opportunity. Encouragingly, Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You! finds Ben Allen at the dials, who, after overseeing Merriweather Post Pavillion, can be sure of a lengthy honeymoon period in the hearts and minds of almost everyone with ears. Allen seems to coax out Hynes’s more leftfield tendencies, morphing the climatic guitar solo of “Dead Head Blues” into a withering drone that helps to bitter the syrup of the song’s pleading romantic dispatch: “I’ve got to meet this guy soon / He don’t appreciate you / I know you’ll realise that soon”. On the equally wistful “Romart”, an Oberst-evoking blend of cherubic guitar chimes and homesick nostalgia winds up at an ever-so-slightly-unsettling end, the melody just off-course from what you expect and the piano chords newly brooding.
This is also a record that sees Hynes’s heart move out from his undergarments and properly onto his sleeve. The superb, slow-burning “Dead Head Blues” opens proceedings by treading tentatively at first, ruminating on past and futures lost (“I saw us in 20 years time in the Midwest / With you in your best dress”) before concluding resignedly, “I know you’re happy / And that’s lovely / It won’t keep me complete” and kicking full-on into its liberating breakdown. After that, the lid’s off the can. “Faculty of Fears” and “The Big Guns of Highsmith” are both parting shots at London, but with the crosshairs tangibly focussed on individuals. “Joke’s on you, I made it out the city”, snaps the latter, while the brilliant spaghetti-western canter-cum-desperation anthem “Sweetheart” pleads, “Please be mine / I won’t act shy / I’m over that stage in my life”. As you’d expect from a Lightspeed Champion album, however, there is a self-deprecatory humour and self-awareness that prevents such unabashed emotion from ever becoming maudlin, or even drippy. After all, any songwriter who follows up the line “Hurt’s to be the one who’s always feeling sad” with an all-male choir booming “Oh, just stop complaining!”, as Hynes does on “Highsmith”, is quite entitled to open his heart to us as well.
As an album of such speckled colouring, Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You! always threatens to burn brighter in some areas than others. “Faculty of Fears”, playing Cassadaga to the Lifted of Hynes’s debut, is a victim of its surroundings. A bright and jaunty love song that would have slotted onto Lavender Bridge without a problem, it is an unwelcome reminder (after the first-rate opening triptych of “Dead Head Blues”, “Marlene”, and “There’s Nothing Underwater”) that Hynes is still capable of penning tame, string-glossed country-rockers. At the other end of the spectrum, “Goodnight Michalek”‘s two-minute piano workout is the kind of thing you’d perform for your proud parents to exhibit just how far your skills have come, and not than virtuoso interlude it aims to be.
Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You! is not the fine-tuning of Falling from the Lavender Bridge‘s promising model, nor does it, by a long shot, aim to be. Although it is fairly obvious that he could perfect the country-sunshine-singed folk-pop of his debut almost effortlessly should he wish, Hynes has instead delivered a multi-faceted breakdown of his own hyperactive productivity. As a result, this is an imperfect record that indulges its architect’s fancies, whether for better or for worse. Happily, it is far more often for the better. In opening up to his own possibilities, Hynes risks the occasional mishit, but he also allows himself, when the connection is clean, to strike compelling new heights.