Lee Jones' 'Down Into Light' Is a Minutiae-Scanning Beauty of Minimal Techno
Down Into Light feels like the album Lee Jones was always born to make. He's always had a lightness of touch, but here, his touch is more delicate than ever.
Down Into Light
1 May 2020
As an artist, Lee Jones always seems to linger on the fringe of things. Sonically, his music is notable for its delicate qualities, its microtonal precision and attention to detail. His most well-known album is, after all, titled Songs for the Gentle (released as a member of MyMy), and it's still a staple in minimal techno circles 14 years later. He put out his first solo LP, Electronic Frank, in 2008, but since then, Jones, like his music, has been relatively quiet. That's not to say he's been silent, of course. There have been several EPs, including 2011's The Moose Mingles, a thing of deep-house beauty, and 2019's One Grain, which saw Jones take a more downtempo approach. It was his dreamiest, most psychedelic release to date. Per his words on Bandcamp: "After years of playing peak time sets in clubs around the globe I became too focused on a world where everything is turned up to maximum, where screams and hands in the air are the main measures of approval. I was missing something, so I made a return to my downtempo roots."
If One Grain saw Jones tinkering with a more subdued approach, Down Into Light takes things a step further. This new LP, his first full-length since Electronic Frank, is lighter, more buoyant, and more refined than anything in his catalogue. It's beat-driven, most of the time, but not exactly danceable. The grooves here are slow, meticulous, and more for drifting off to than stomping your feet to. The songs are minimalist, but they're anything but simple; on the surface, they may appear simple, but it's the little things going on under the surface—distant static-crackle, muted bass drums, an occasional brass section—that make all the difference.
Nowhere is this attention to detail more evident than on "Sundance", the fourth track. It's quite possibly the finest in Lee Jones' whole discography. On the surface, the song is driven by shakers, a classic house beat and a relatively simple piano melody. In the background, however, rich, fat synths hover in and out of earshot, and a gorgeous clarinet pops in here and there, often lingering on the same note for long stretches of time. These features add both depth and dexterity. They make the track feel warmer, more intimate, but also more limber and playful.
This balance between depth and dexterity is the hallmark of Down Into Light. Many songs feel downbeat and upbeat at once. Take the title track, one of the sparsest pieces on the record. The song kicks off with a mournful four-note piano lead and occasional douses of glitchy static-crackle. But as it progresses, the synths get sharper and brighter, climbing higher and higher in pitch. Coupled with the blissful keyboard washes, this gives the track a take-off sensation. It's like we're building to some sort of epiphany or burst of daylight. A similar thing happens in "Books". Here, we have another minimal groove and downbeat piano lead, but it's the distant clarinet—the way it lightly pokes through the mix, up from under the main groove—that saves the track from feeling barren. It's moments like these where Jones' tact and precision come to the fore. Even the emptiest tracks are far from empty if you're really paying attention.
In this way, Down Into Light feels like the album Lee Jones was always born to make. He's always had a lightness of touch, but here, his touch is more delicate than ever. Tracks like "Glacial" and "Contraflow" have a microhouse-like flavor, with their slow pace, faint textures, and soft, cushiony kick drums. Nothing comes to us bluntly here. Instead of listening to a dance song, it's like we're slowing down to scan the minutiae of it, dissecting and probing every little sound. The effect this has is that no matter how weird or off-kilter a track may sound, its delivery is always graceful. "Empty World" is a prime example. This one is led by an odd rhythm of spiky, clucking drums, but they are played so quietly, so gently, that—coupled with the soft shakers and gently-orbiting pads—the song never feels jarring. It's off-kilter, but never off-putting. One is reminded of those early Basic Channel recordings, where even the strangest and glitchiest of sounds felt relaxing.
The only beat-less track on Down Into Light is the last one, ironically titled "Drone Strike". It's ambient, sedating, but far from an afterthought—the texture here is even woozier than the previous nine songs, full of airy piano and submerged synths. It's a fitting end to a reflective LP, one that was admittedly made during quarantine, while Lee Jones was sheltered in his home in Kreuzberg, Germany. On Bandcamp, he wrote that the album was his "personal reaction to this incredible time". Indeed, it's a time when many of us have more time to slow down and smell the roses—or, in this case, scan the minutiae. In this sense, Down Into Lights feels handmade for a time of deep introspection. As Lee Jones' music turns more and more inward, it just gets better and better.