Porter Robinson
Photo: Aidan Cullen / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Porter Robinson’s ‘Nurture’ Combines Piano, Electronics, and Big Pop Hooks

Porter Robinson’s ear for melody and his willingness to occasionally undermine those melodies with glitchy electronic sounds make for an engaging record.

Porter Robinson
Mom + Pop
23 April 2021

Porter Robinson has been making music in at least a semi-professional capacity since he was 12. Like many electronic-oriented artists, his career hasn’t followed the traditional recording cycle, album releases, touring, and starting over. Robinson has used aliases including Ekowraith and Virtual Self over the years, and he’s been a force in EDM circles for a decade, yet until Nurture dropped, his only official album under his name was Worlds, back in 2014.

Robinson has been promoting Nurture for over a year, as the album’s planned 2020 release and international tour were both delayed by the pandemic. This delay put the record in the unusual position of having five singles released before the full-length finally came out. With 14 songs clocking in at over an hour, Nurture is a bit of a sprawl. Robinson is trying a lot of different things here, but his ear for melody and his willingness to occasionally undermine those melodies with glitchy electronic sounds make for an engaging record.

“Lifelike”, the album’s 90-second prelude, has a taste of what Robinson has in store. It begins with the sounds of birds chirping while a simple three-note synth figure repeats, with a skipping sound left in so the listener knows it’s repeating. Then a piano melody with simple chords comes in, and the skipping noise disappears. After this, a violin sound picks up the melody, followed by an accordion. Meanwhile, the accompaniment gets busier and more complex, adding more sounds and ornamentation before starting to fade away. At the end, it’s just the accordion and a highly active harpsichord countermelody. It’s a catchy little bit of music that highlights Robinson’s knack for melody and his penchant for combining electronics with more acoustic instrument sounds.

Nurture‘s second track, “Look at the Sky”, was released as a single in 2021 January, and its big synth brass hook makes it easy to see why. In the verses, Robinson often harmonizes his singing voice with a “digital falsetto” technique that makes it sound like he’s sharing the vocal duties with a woman. The song has a good sense of dynamics, knowing when to push bigger and get quieter. It’s a bright, unabashed pop song that veers into treacly territory, but not so much that the song becomes aggravating. The third song, “Get Your Wish”, was the lead single from way back in January 2020. The digital falsetto vocals are in the fore here, and digital-sounding drums and synths dominate the music. “Get Your Wish” is still bright and sunny, even bringing back the bird sounds in the song’s intro, but it isn’t going for quite the same level of big pop hooks as “Look at the Sky”.

When the album hits track four, “Wind Tempos”, Robinson dares to get a little weird. This six-minute track opens with what’s essentially the iconic piano riff of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” in a different key. But he goes on to explore completely different territory with his song, which is largely instrumental for its first four minutes. All manner of swishing sounds go by, while individual high piano notes are occasionally plunked out, and a violin starts to solo. But then the song starts in with digital glitches, mid-20th century synth sounds playing major scales, and string section swells. The noise mostly drops out in favor of a calm piano solo that seems very influenced by the work of Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi. Eventually, digitally altered vocals come in over the piano, giving the song an unexpected hook even as the vocals break down into glitchiness near the song’s end and the piano riff comes back.

The other largely instrumental track here is “dullscythe”, which begins with off-putting synth piano sounds that stop and start constantly. Even when a melody enters just before the one-minute mark, it’s heavily digitally altered with the same stops and starts. Brief hints of breakbeats flit through here and there, and the song eventually resolves itself in a wash of synth chords a little bit past the halfway point. Unlike “Wind Tempos”, which opens with the LCD Soundsystem reference, “dullscythe” saves its reference for near the end, when a melody breaks through that closely resembles the main synth hook from The Postal Service’s iconic single “Such Great Heights”.

At other times, Robinson stretches to explore other pop styles. “Blossom” is a simple song where the acoustic guitar is the only instrument. Robinson again harmonizes with himself, and the context of his natural voice and the slightly robotic-sounding digital falsetto is an interesting one in this setting. “Musician”, on the other hand, goes full electropop, with a host of synths, samples, and other electronic sounds providing the music. It’s a joyous-sounding pop track that sounds like a celebration without becoming cloying.

For the most part, though, Robinson favors using the piano as his basic instrument, which keeps these songs grounded enough to feel like pop music with electronic elements more than something in the EDM world where he started. The other thing that sets Nurture apart is its focus on melody. Its songs are largely constructed around core melodies, so much so that the big, looping beats that characterize so much of the dance music world are mostly absent here, or at the very least, a secondary concern.

It’s interesting to hear what Robinson does with his big hooks elsewhere on the record. A song like “Mirror” has a strong piano element, but Robinson fills the beats with digital clicks and pops for his percussion. “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do” sounds like it will be a rote exercise in the major scale from its title, but Robinson uses all sorts of electronic noises to build up from the simple acoustic guitar riff that begins the song. Eventually, the vocals come in and do indeed sing the famous syllables of the title, but most of the song is focused on the manipulation and ornamentation of the initial guitar riff. “Unfold”, a collaboration with fellow electronic musician Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, is a bit slower and a bit noisier than most of the other tracks on the album. It focuses more on a vocal melody, while the keyboards are more of a background accompaniment.

Nurture is maybe a little too long of an album for 2021-level attention spans, but after seven years and a notable case of writer’s block, it’s understandable that Robinson would want to go big. Not every song here is top-notch, but Robinson’s relentless insistence on catchy melodies makes it all quite listenable. Even when he tips over the line into cheesiness, his brevity (most songs are under the four-minute mark) keeps songs from wearing out their welcome. Nurture is a bright, cheery album that may help to lift some moods as North America moves past the worst of the COVID pandemic.

RATING 7 / 10