Usually when I hear a great album, I can't wait to sit down and write about it. When you write music reviews, it's such a luxury to put aside the list of negatives and pick up the list of superlatives that you generally grab the opportunity with both hands. But with Lemon Jelly's Lost Horizons, I've been having trouble forcing myself to sit down at the keyboard and start typing. I'm afraid my words won't do it justice. It's that good.
But here goes nothing.
Lemon Jelly is Fred Deakin and Nick Franglen, a British duo who first surfaced just a few years ago with a series of ten-inch EPs noteworthy for their gorgeous, fanciful packaging and music that was a cheeky pastiche of downtempo grooves, old-fashioned Brit-pop and campy samples. Though their music was often great, it was marred, I thought, by a tongue-in-cheek quality that suggested the duo was more interested in showing off how clever they were than in making original music. Case in point: Last year Lemon Jelly released a smooth house remix of Chicago's unbearably schmaltzy AOR ballad, "If You Leave Me Now", and put it out in a blue-jean denim sleeve complete with strawberry-flavored condom tucked into the back pocket. Frightfully clever, yes; deliciously kitschy, sure; but once you got the joke, there was no point in ever listening to the song again.
Still, the duo's collected EPs, eventually released as an album called lemonjelly.ky, garnered them a strong following among fans of similar British downtempo duos like Bent, Zero 7 and Fila Brazilia, and so this year they finally released their first full-fledged album, Lost Horizons. And here's the part where words begin to fail me. Although they still haven't entirely lost their penchant for intrusive campiness, Lemon Jelly have taken the classic British downtempo formula here and shaped it into something so irresistibly playful, warm-hearted, and yes, beautiful, that it's almost unprecedented. Echoes of all those other downtempo duos are still here, but this is something new, a soundtrack to bliss that transcends genres as it sets out on the unassuming task of simply making you, the listener, really, really happy.
Deakin and Franglin seem to be announcing the purity of their intentions on the opening track, "Elements", which has a voiceover simply naming basic components of our world: "Ash. Metal. Water. Wood. And fire". Much as these disparate elements somehow seem to fit together through the repetition of the speaker's cozy British voice, the song itself blends acoustic guitars, flugelhorns, synths, skittering breakbeat rhythms, a folksy harmonica, and even a falsetto "doo-doo" chorus courtesy of a quartet called Original Blend, slowly building into an increasingly complex and sumptuous musical froth that floats along like the clouds in the last element the speaker finally adds to the mix, "Sky".
Then, without pause, we move right from sky into outer space, as an astronaut's staticky transmission leads us into the even more weightless "Space Walk". Cleverly looping the astronaut's astonished description of watching a sunrise in space, the song becomes the embodiment of his repeated, "Beautiful, just beautiful". Like all of Lemon Jelly's songs, "Space Walk" unfolds slowly and with an expansiveness that seems to allow for any number of changes in direction: at one point the song dissolves into an almost funky spray of keyboard blips, only to coalesce back into the plucked chords of an acoustic guitar. Then it bursts into a full-blown, bouncing climax in which floating piano notes, ghostly harmony vocals, turntable scratches and the beeps of the astronaut's transmission all freely coexist.
This gift for bouncing between and even layering totally incongruous elements is what makes Lost Horizons such a joy to listen to, even on the twentieth repeat. On "Return to Patagonia", a breathy sax slithers over an urgently jazzy backbeat while a "Carmina Burana"-like chorus chants in the background; on "The Curse of Ka'Zar", a two-part harmony chorus and jazzy drum loop that could have been lifted from an old Buddy Rich record mutate in and out with a slow, menacing hip-hop beat before giving way to a "Dragnet" horn section that in turn gives way to a shimmering Brit-pop cascade of warm guitar and piano chords. Lemon Jelly's most dazzling balancing act comes on "Nice Weather for Ducks", which builds, audaciously, off a stridently corny old children's song. "All the ducks are swimming in the water/Fa-la-la-la-la", sings a operatically fruity male voice, promising an unbearable dose of camp but instead heralding the sunniest song I heard all year, a beautiful romp of chiming guitars, muted trumpets and bouncy basslines that impossibly, fabulously shapeshifts mid-way through into a brassy mambo band. A song this giddy risks being insufferable, but Lemon Jelly somehow pull it off.
They don't just specialize in sunniness, either. On the genuinely spooky "Experiment Number Six", Lemon Jelly make clever use of an alleged scientist's "field recording" (my bet is it's a fake, but it's still a great sample) to take listeners on a lurching, discordant journey through an experiment gone horribly awry. As the music slowly builds from an ominous shuffle to a drunkenly giddy chorus of muted trumpets and space-age bachelor jazz vocals, so the doctor's vocals tell of the experiment's subject progressing from a normal state to an "overwhelming sense of well-being and euphoria" to "profuse sweating" and finally to "no response to external stimuli" as whatever drug the subject has taken slowly kills him, or her, or it. A bit obvious, perhaps, but here again the music is so well crafted that it works.
It's that painstaking attention to craft that makes Lost Horizons such a marvel, and will be what either sends downtempo fans flocking to Lemon Jelly or running the other way. Much like Fred Deakin's glossily gorgeous fold-out CD booklet (Deakin doubles as a graphic artist), the music of Lemon Jelly is all about precision and polish; there's not a rough edge to be found on any of Lost Horizon's eight tracks, which even clock in at a fastidious sixty minutes exactly. Such perfectionism can easily be construed as soullessness, but I think what Deakin and Franglin are actually striving for here is to strike a balance between the warmth and humanity of their music's sounds and the machine-like grace of its flawless production. To my ears, they succeed, and in doing so create exactly sixty minutes of aural bliss that few other downtempo acts can rival.