Saul Williams has been trafficking in his particular brand of hyper-literate hip-hop for years now. His fourth studio album (and first in four years), Volcanic Sunlight is a dense, engaging work, one that reaches for your feet and booty as surely as it does your heart and soul. Where Williams’ earlier work found him working with everything from darkly jaunty piano-based raps (“Black Stacey”) to electro-clash reworkings of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, large swaths Volcanic Sunlight could be mistaken for TV on the Radio’s swarming sci-fi-R&B freakouts, or perhaps relative newcomer Theophilus London’s spacious modernist R&B workouts.
Williams actually seems to be moving away from the righteous fury that informed his earliest albums, and has admitted that he set out to make a pop album this time around. “On this album, I wanted to put words that didn’t get in the way of the music. Before, I always let the words dominate,” he said of Volcanic Sunlight around the time of its release. But it’s still a Saul Williams pop record: eccentric and compelling. Case in point: the title track, which begins with a dancing ride cymbal figure, explodes into a labyrinthine mix of synths and multi-tracked vocals before closing with an awesomely out-of-place orchestral horn part that sounds lifted from Sgt. Pepper’s.
Williams hasn’t completely subverted his more literate tendencies, and turns “Innocence” into a showcase for the rapid-fire slam poetry that first brought him fame. The first verses bring his choir of layered vocals to the fore, but after the third chorus, Williams launches headlong into a pedal-to-the-metal verse that slowly outstrips the backing track. The instruments fade away, leaving only Williams and his marvelously rhythmic delivery to take the track to its end.
“Explain My Heart” is another overstuffed wonder featuring tribal beats, orchestral horn blats and Williams’ wordless vocals at their most Tunde Adebimpe-esque. His voice soars beautifully on “Diagram”, augmented by surging synths and hand-claps. The tension caused by the sinister backing track bumping up against the tender, confessional lyrics is clearly intentional and artful. “Girls on Saturn” is a glitchy, Casio-based burner. It sounds like Williams hijacked a lost Mark Mothersbaugh composition for the backing track before filtering it through his twisted lens.
“New Day” works some deceptively dissonant harmonies into a plea to press on. The intro’s churning eighth-notes almost sound like punk rock but Williams shifts their urgency into the background of a half-time stomp, as organs and synths swell in the background. There’s no rapping on this track — it’s about as straightforward as the album gets, but it’s an uplifting, effective album closer.
One thing you can’t accuse Volcanic Sunlight of, though, is brevity. Most of the tracks average around four minutes, with three of 13 striding past five minutes. And again, that’s not a criticism, but with a whole generation of younger artists making similar music with more easily-digestible themes, there’s a sense that Williams is caught between worlds. He’s compromising some of his more confrontational tendencies to make a more accessible record, but he could end up getting lost in a sea of artists he influenced five or six years ago. Still, Volcanic Sunlight is a solid, finely-tuned album that reveals new turns and tricks with every listen.