James Iha waited 14 years to release his sophomore solo record, and it's become an unnexpected surprise.
When James Iha released his solo debut in 1998 entitled Let It Come Down, most Pumpkins fans (of whom the majority of his audience was comprised) were expecting it to come down—but in that fun altnerna-rock kind of way. Many anticipated a more precise and focused sound that the Pumpkins (at the time in the height of their popularity) were famous for. Instead it all came down in a completely separate and more confounding manner. Who was this oddly quirky and soulful singer singing border-line country ditties, with rarely an electric guitar to be found anywhere on the record? The album was confusingly hypnotic, but not entirely in a good way—almost as if at times you want to rip your ears off, but kept delaying because you were enticed enough to continue listening.
At the time that Come Down was released, the internet had yet to restructure the musical landscape, and the soon to be popularized sound of acoustic soul had yet to emerge—bands like Iron & Wine and Stars had yet to be discovered. Little did we know just how far ahead of his time Iha was? An album that sounded out-of-place in 1998 would fit perfectly into today's musical landscape. And yet, it took Iha more than 14 years to release a follow-up. In between, Iha left the Pumpkins rather unceremoniously (as per reports from Corgan), joined A Perfect Circle, began producing albums for other acts, scored a bunch of films, guest appeared on a variety of other records, and all the while recording material for his long awaited (is that the word? Was it "awaited"?) follow-up. For reasons unknown, Iha embarked on a different promotional gamut by releasing Look to the Sky in Japan before making the trek across the ocean to the North American market. A move that may have helped ease the more conventional music listening public in America warm up to his soft crooner style. Well, no such cushion was needed on such a fittingly romantic and pleasing record.
Look to the Sky begins with a soft plucking of an acoustic guitar lightly accented by a Rhodes as James sings: "You rush in with stars in your hair / You cast your spell and float through the air". "Make Believe" sets the tone for a perfectly crafted mellow and romantic album that shouldn't be completely unexpected, but somehow is. Remarkably, Iha's lyrics, which will sound shrill and silly to the ears of pretentious hipsters that take their music far too seriously, is lightly accented with simple rhyme structures—as they are meant to be set to such almost fragile music. After suffering through the tumult and angst of the '90s where poeticism reigns supreme, there is a grace in being able to say something eloquently, with childlike precision. There's no need to overplay it, and Iha manages to convey his emotions with a straightforward exchange. Sometimes, expression doesn't need to be wrapped in impossibly idiotic and overly needless complicated trite. Sometimes, you can simply say: "I love you", or something to that effect. That is what Iha manages to do with Look to the Sky.
The album is that rare instance when lyrics can't be logistically separated from the atmosphere of the musical accompaniment. They exist within each other, accenting one another in such a way that one without the other wouldn't make quite a lot of sense. It's something that many singer/songwriters aspire to, and most fail to accomplish. In the fourteen years between Let It Come Down and Look to the Sky, you get the distinct impression that Iha has spent his time observing and learning and honing his craft to create a symbiotic album melding melody, music and lyric into one cohesive whole. The apt title Look to the Sky, says it all—the album is best listened to with headphones in the middle of the night staring at the sky. Not to imply that this scenario is the only way one can enjoy the album, but it does serve for the optimal listening experience. And with so many rushes through music and disposability, it’s refreshing to come across a record that isn't afraid to soften the tone, slow the pace, and emanate love.
Beyond the sometimes impossibly serene tunes like "Dream Tonight" or "Dark Star" exists the one sore thumb and misstep on this record—it's actually the precise reason why this album isn't rated a 9. "Appetite" comes right smack dab in the middle with it's augmented chord structure, abrasive drum beat, and jazz infused hard piano playing. It sticks out like crazy and really has no place in such a warm collection of tunes. It's a little confounding to try and think why James felt it necessary for its inclusion here, especially given its sonic discord from the rest of the album. However, clocking in at 14 tracks with a running time of just under an hour, skipping this track doesn't leave a hole in the rest of this beautiful and calming record from a man who's roots started in a band whose sole purpose was to provoke and unnerve.