SOHN has made something of a name for himself with his stylish, on-trend electronic production efforts. He helped craft the sleek and slinky gloom that served as the ethos for Banks’s debut album, and has produced remixes for the likes of Lana Del Rey in a similar vein. Aligning himself neatly with the genre of deconstructed, minimal electro-R&B, he has consistently demonstrating a penchant for forlorn vocal atmospherics and mid-tempo beats that land like sharp pains. Even after the release of his 2014 solo debut Tremors, however, it is sometimes hard to remove the “producer” lens that clings to SOHN and to view him as a multifaceted artist with his own voice and his own statements to make, unfair as that may be. The task for his sophomore effort, Rennen (which translates to “run” in German) is to further assert his individuality and prove his viability in a crowded field of like-minded auteurs.
SOHN injects Rennen with a bit more stylistic diversity than previous efforts. While the production backdrop consistently and unmistakably bears the mark of his hand, he plays around more with his vocal approach, albeit with mixed results. The change is immediately evident on the first two tracks, “Hard Liquor” and “Conrad”. Nothing about SOHN’s singing here is particularly “R&B”, really; instead, here his melodies and vocal mannerisms more closely mimic a kind of blues-rock. “My baby don’t make a sound / As long as her hard liquor’s not watered down,” he sings on the opener, elongating the word “hard” into a weary, almost twangy drawl. Meanwhile, the vocal line that forms the outline of “Conrad” faintly sounds like it could feature a “Black Dog”-esque Jimmy Page guitar riff underneath it (slowed to jaunt and doused with water, perhaps). Though “Conrad” employs a fittingly bluesy Wurlitzer-like keyboard as its undercurrent, on most tracks of this ilk the grittier vocals are cut-and-pasted onto the streamlined electro-R&B foundation already described. There’s nothing wrong with mixing genres, which indeed may be more the norm in 2017 anyway, but the slightly inelegant way they are combined here can make for an inauthentic- and appropriative-sounding listen.
Fortunately, SOHN does not stick with the hollow blues-rock embellishments throughout Rennen. With several exceptions, after the first two songs this sound mostly subside in favor of a neo-soul approach that is more familiar, more unified, and overall more successful. Standout track “Primary”, written about the United States presidential primary campaign, is an appropriately mournful number featuring the poignant refrain, “We’re not better than this”. Starting out as sparse, solitary musing, the song rapturously and elegantly transitions into a meditative deep house jam while losing none of its elegiac beauty.
Indeed, while the mood remains languid and gloomy throughout the album, SOHN manages to keep things from getting too boring by veering in unexpected directions toward the end of many tracks. He has said that he made a conscious effort to limit his songs to three main elements each, which pays off by maximizing the impact of each new layer. On “Falling”, SOHN lulls listeners into a kind of hypnosis with his repetition of the titular verb before shocking us out of complacency by adding a noisy, squealing, near-terrifying synth. Similarly, “Harbour” spends just enough time as a formless, spacious, ambient reverie that its sharp transition into a chug-chugging full-bodied breakdown in its final minute is riveting.
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While SOHN’s more adventurous songwriting may sadly have led him astray early on in the album, this is not to say that none of his experimentations pay off. The spare, hypnotic balladry of the title track, which heralds the album’s second half, is far and away its best song, though also not quite the mold of what one might expect from SOHN. There is something inverted-seeming about the track; in the same way that the keyboard line from the Beatles’ “Because” is really “Moonlight Sonata” played backward, “Rennen” feels like the mirror image of some lost or undiscovered composition. “Oh father, release me / My bones feel like stone…my faith don’t mean a thing” he sings prayerfully, adding to the spiritual feel that pervades much of the album as a whole. Each element here congeals seamlessly into the larger piece, producing at last a truly singular work that proves SOHN’s artistry beyond the tropes of his favored genre.
If at times Rennen suffers under the weight of its own trendiness, it finds redemption in SOHN’s unmistakable craftsmanship and ear for nuance. The restraint he describes going into each track is evident, and still the album abounds with rich textures to get lost in. There are a few misadventures to be sure, particularly early on in the album, but if you are able to look past these you will find that Rennen still has plenty to offer.