Back at the turn of the millennium, Thom Yorke famously proclaimed that the cutting-edge IDM of Aphex Twin and Autechre made him feel “just as emotional as (he’d) ever felt about guitar music”. The Intelligent Dance Music genre has long been surrounded by controversy, not just for its title, which many (including key artists) have denounced as pretentious, but also for its supposed coldness, its alleged lack of humanism and feeling.
Like everything in life, the truth is much less straightforward. There are a few dry, painfully austere releases buried in the canon, however, IDM has also produced numerous masterworks, all of which positively teem with soul and emotion. In recent years, artists like Loraine James and labelmate Laurel Halo, as well as Planet Mu’s Meemo Comma and Dekmental’s Upsammy have injected the genre with fresh ideas and progressive, open-hearted perspectives. IDM was long seen as the preserve of nerdy white men, so this influx of women, queer and POC artists (all of which James identifies as) has given the genre a new lease of life.
Reflection wholly obliterates any qualms about the genre’s potential for emotional austerity. James recorded the album in lockdown-littered 2020, and across the course of its vibrantly alive 11 tracks, her soul soars across space and time, sifting through memories and yearning for a better world. The album shifts its compositional tone and emotional axis with the skill of a master craftswoman, moving between melancholic longing, seductive romanticism, and hopeful optimism with deft, controlled ease.
James’ previous release – October 2020’s Nothing EP, made brilliant use of eclectic vocals gathered from artists residing all over the world. Reflection utilizes a similar range of voices, which cry out like lost souls trapped in the limbo etherworld of 2020. Highlights include Eden Samara’s ethereal and gorgeous contribution to “Running Like That”, Baths’ layered, surreal work on “On the Lake Outside”, and James herself on “Self Doubt (Leaving the Club Early)”. That last song is the finest moment on Reflection and a genuine contender for the best track of 2021.
“Self Doubt (Leaving the Club Early)” is Reflection’s beating heart, the encapsulation of everything that James is capable of. Her lyrics are pure poetry, filled with heartbreaking, fragmented images that bounce around the track like half-remembered dreams. James’ directs much of her words at an undefined “you” – giving it an air of hushed intimacy, as if capturing a secret conversation between two lovers. “There’s rivers to tread in,” she announces, imagining a better world/future, before ending the track with the evocative and deeply romantic “you were in a hurry, leaving the club early” mantra.
The production of “Self Doubt (Leaving the Club Early)” is muscular and dense, rife with weighty, forceful kickdrums and piercing eight-bit squelches. Yet it’s married up against lush, neon-lit synths, evoking two lovers making a dash from the club and out into the dreamy-hued city evening. Other tracks on Reflection use this technique to evoke a similar, almost erotic milieu. The title track features sultry rolling drums and explicit references to separation and longing, while “Running Like That” is equally tender yet physical, layering cryptic yet amorous lyrics atop dubstep bass wobbles and skittish drums.
The tracks that are most IDM-ish, such as the angular “Let’s Go” and the lengthy head-scrambler “Change”, show that James can produce works of cerebral, mechanical genius. Yet what’s so brilliant about Reflection is that James chooses to forge her own identity, embracing drill, R&B, and numerous other sounds to create a work that’s as rife with emotion and observations as it is technical virtuosity. It’s a complete package – a work of seductive, heartfelt brilliance by an artist at the absolute peak of her powers.