There are times when a genre seems limited by both its traditions and its contemporary interpretators, when you begin to wonder whether the sounds and patterns you associate with the intrinsic worth of that music are too rigid a skeleton for the genre ever to truly grow or develop. “Soul” won its name from the depth, the vibrancy, the rawness in the voices of its singers, the way it seemed to dredge up the most profound joys and miseries of its creators and set them, quivering, to music. The dissolution of modern soul into the poppy inanities of R&B and the laconic understatement of jazz has not stopped us from feeling a very deep bond with a relatively short, distinctive sounding and exceedingly prolific time in musical history. Religious or not, “soulful” is possibly the most highest compliment a singer can receive; it brings with it intimations of striking a resonant chord at the supposed core of humanity, of honesty, courage, dedication and more.
However you expect your soul singer to sound (and we all know it when we hear it, even if defining it can border on the inexpressible), Jamie Lidell is probably not how you expect him to look. A middle-aged white Englishman sporting thick nerd glasses, a scraggly beard and a cardy you suspect was knitted for him by his mum, Jamie’s tax inspector exterior hides all the passionate intensity and delirious falsetto action you could ask for. However, the air of lab inspector seriousness isn’t entirely misleading, as his musical past consists of partnership with techno boffin Cristian Vogel in the clinical avant funk duo Super_Collider (whose modus operandi of musical creation was about as artificial and abstracted as it’s possible to get) and an earlier solo album of experimental IDM instrumentals on Warp. This is contrasted with his gradual introduction of lyrics into the Super_Collider material, singing at their live shows and indeed for the Matthew Herbert Big Band, as witnessed by two tracks on Goodbye Swingtime. At the moment he’s busily building on his reputation as a live virtuoso who simply cannot perform a song the same way twice, in the habit of spontaneously multi-tracking himself into a beatboxing, crooning, shrieking force of nature, or sampling the audience clapping and turning it into a beat for his next number.
For a guy who sees composition as the beginning rather than the fruition of the musical process — akin, in some twisted way, to Andrew Bird — this album of starting points employs some very carefully reproduced musical touches that mix skittery laptop drum patterns with squelchy synth funk and live instrumentation which could, depending on the song, have escaped from a Curtis Mayfield, Prince or Motown track. The bleed-over of shared mics so prevalent in the latter was apparently a technique employed when Lidell got together with fellow Berlin residents Mocky (mainly on bass and backing vocals) and Gonzales (keyboard and organ) to flesh out his laptop sketches into something alive yet not too polished.
The results occasionally teeter on the edge of over-production, opener “You Got Me Up” seems more of a doodle than a song, and the balance between recreation and exploration isn’t always struck with aplomb, but when things do gel Lidell pulls off some magical moments: the collapse of “When I Come Back Around”‘s synth solo and breathily thick electro rhythm into a 30-second breakdown of ricocheting vamps, MJ-esque squeals and rising synth tone is simultaneously one of the most assured and electifying musical passages of the year, raw brass cuts a cathartic swathe through the driving frenzy of a rhythmic assault equal parts James Brown and Herbie Hancock on “New Me”, and “The City” evokes claustrophobia and real desperation without abandoning its groove. Nostalgic traditionalists, moreover, will be unable to deny Lidell his chops after the genuinely gorgeous “What’s the Use”, the effortlessly lithe singing and finger snaps of “Music Will Not Last” and the back-to-basics closer “Game For Fools”, which shows that his songwriting and delivery have the sensitivity and conviction to stand alone.
More than a patchy but occasionally brilliant album, Multiply is the whisper that the greatest soul music, rather than being trapped in our memories of times gone by, may yet play free in days to come. For that alone it’s worth picking up, but know this regardless: Jamie Lidell got soul.