Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin, had already achieved a prolific career by 1996. He was only 26 years old, releasing music from other artists while co-running Rephlex Records, and signed to Warp Records with several releases of his own under his belt. He had two music videos that received airplay on MTV and had his music featured in television advertisements. His popularity was going to blow up even more only a year later. Aphex Twin’s fame would be boosted by the release of 1997’s Come to Daddy EP and one of a handful of experimental music videos directed by Chris Cunningham. James had more than enough music to keep the public’s attention as well as himself entertained. “That’s practically all I do every day, just make music, so I got loads of it,” James told MTV. “It’ll never all come out. It’s too much.”
By the release of 1996’s Richard D. James Album, James placed himself in the public eye more often. However, he was only beginning to embody his elusive, weirdo persona in terms of his branding. That is primarily due to his use of a specific, repeating image. Richard D. James Album is the second LP for which he uses a creepy picture of his face for the cover art. It isn’t a straightforward portrait. The smile is distorted, giving him a grin that is a little too wide to be safe. It carries a sinister, insidious quality. This smile appeared in several of James’ key works in the 1990s. It became a significant identifier of Aphex Twin material and a big part of Aphex Twin’s success.
Conversely, he seems like a laid-back, average guy. He doesn’t have a charismatic presence. He’s quiet and unassuming, making it baffling to think that such wild, complex electronic music came from his imagination. Raised in Cornwall, England, James was always most comfortable making music in isolation: “I consider myself some kid mucking around in his bedroom,” he said in a 1996 interview. “That’s the way I’ve always seen myself.” He’s introspective, introverted, and married to his creative process and outlet. It’s easy to be hypnotized by his hyperactive, repetitious beats, how dizzying and enveloping they can be. I imagine James probably gets lost in the percussive patterns himself as he makes them.
As a departure from his previous releases, Richard D. James Album felt more current. “The music on it is something I’ve done in the last year, and I usually release stuff that’s at least two or three years old,” James told MTV near the album’s release. “It’s the first album I’ve put out that’s actually what I’ve been up to recently.” To make his previous releases, he used self-modified synths and other instruments. That was no longer the case. “For this album, I did it all on a computer. I didn’t use any other equipment at all.”
Accessibility also became a concern for James: “I’ve been trying to make my stuff on the surface seem really accessible but also have some hidden complexity underneath, to have a bit more depth, so it doesn’t become a headache to listen to.” Although his previous LP, 1995’s…I Care Because You Do, is arguably just as accessible, it’s tamer and less energetic. The songs of …I Care Because You Do are patient, calmer, and nicer compared to the hyper-aggressive energy of Richard D. James Album.
That said, Richard D. James Album is more structurally accessible than the previous LP. He began to use more standard song arrangements. Many of the songs have light intros and outros, as well as refrains and clear melodies. “Girl/Boy Song”, the record’s stand-out track with its big orchestral sound over a beat that sounds like a continuous drum solo, is structured with verse and chorus movements. It even has a soft, playful bridge part.
The incorporation of symphonic styles is something that carried over from …I Care Because You Do. “I’ve always loved string instruments, he said in a 1997 interview. “I’ve always liked the subtleties. I get quite a good laugh trying to recreate strings electronically, try to get them to sound as real as possible… Some of it’s generated, some of it’s sampled from my own playing.” This results in moments throughout the album that may be as emotionally sweeping as a composition performed by a full symphonic orchestra.
“4”, the album opener, exemplifies the tone of the entire album with a stuttering beat that mimics drum rolls and an overlying melody driven by synth and partly by violin. “Fingerbib” is curious, adventurously paced, and full of heart. “Carn Marth” and “To Cure a Weakling Child” feature sounds that mimic solo trumpet parts. “Goon Goompas”, the most pleasant track of them all, sounds like it belongs in a children’s fantasy movie at a point of innocent discovery. With a style that borders on cinematic, it’s no mystery why James has been asked to make music for film soundtracks (unfortunately, he always declines).
James makes good use of his ambient sensibilities honed in his early Selected Ambient Works days. “Yellow Calx” is soft and mesmerizing, and “Logan Rock Witch” is relaxed yet overtly silly because of its froggy electronic vibraslap sounds. And at this point in his career, he began to sing in his music, although only presenting it as heavily mutated. “To Cure a Weakling Child” features his voice manipulated to sound like the voice of a child. His use of vocals only gets weirder on the Come to Daddy EP. Anytime you hear vocals on a song composed by Richard D. James, it will be his voice whether you believe it or not.
What makes Richard D. James Album stand out among James’ previous works is the synthesis of delicate, symphonic sounds and hard, jackhammering beats. By the end of 1995, James was beginning to wade into the waters of a short-lived form of electronic music known as drill ‘n’ bass. This is essentially drum and bass but with faster-paced, more frantic, twitchy beats. James’ 1995 EP Hangable Auto Bulb, released under the alias of AFX, marks when he made this stylistic change. It acts as a stepping stone between ...I Care Because You Do and Richard D. James Album.
But Richard D. James Album is a more clear-cut and defined record compared to his previous works. It has a more unifying vision. “Cornish Acid” is aggressive and relentless. It has a pounding bass beat, nasally retro-robotic sounds, and high-end bass tones that feel heady and laser-precise. It’s also strikingly similar to Kraftwerk’s “Numbers,” yet there is no official word of James sampling the song. “Peek 82454201” is the most baroque composition on the album. It is stylistically comparable to the music of friend and label mate, Squarepusher. It also offers an insight into future Aphex Twin works, particularly 2001’s Drukqs. “Carn Marth” is a lively tune that could benefit from more low-end bass, despite building up to an exciting breakdown (or a drop, as the EDM kids say).
Lastly, although it is difficult to express a personal side when your art is so abstract, Richard D. James Album carries an unprecedented personal quality. This is because James gave the album his birth name, but it goes a bit deeper than that. Even the name Aphex Twin carries a meaning, albeit a complicated meaning that James avoided explaining until the release of this album. When asked about it in the past, he would say that it’s meaningless.
But after the release of Richard D. James Album, he began to answer questions about his names more directly. Evidently, James is named after his younger brother, Richard James, who died at birth. His mother couldn’t emotionally accept her child’s death, so she gave her next child the same name as a way of coping. It’s a sad story that doesn’t come out when listening to the album, but I can’t help but believe that it influenced the music in some way. It was undoubtedly on James’ mind.