From Ryan Lott’s earliest work under the Son Lux moniker — several years before touring members Rafiq Bhatia and Ian Chang joined him full time — there’s been something glacial about the music. There’s a sweeping orchestral grandeur about it, a sound connecting it with brooding end-of-20th century Icelandic avant-pop. Lott’s voice often sails on the same wind that carries hawks and eagles. Yet, at times the music takes on quick-tempo Brainfeeder label-like jitters, not quite dancefloor-ready but close. Even their 2015 NPR Tiny Desk Concert, usually a place for musicians to offer more compact versions of themselves, found the trio adding a six-piece US Marine Band horn section. Political developments in the United States since that time, however, have given the band‘s music even more weight, as 2018’s Brighter Wounds bears out. Here, the lyrics became at once more specific and more unclear as this trio of New Yorkers questioned how on earth we got into such a mess.
And then came 2020, and events that exposed the rot in American capitalism like nothing we’d yet seen. The years of racist division and denial of science in the face of a global pandemic have had unsurprisingly deadly results. One way bands, suddenly unable to tour, handled the immediate void was to make more records. Son Lux were no exception, with Tomorrows II their second release of 2020 and part two of a trilogy. The pain the band explores here may make for some of the most beautiful music they’ve yet recorded. Opener “Warning” is slow, piano-led, with near-operatic Antony Haggerty hints, as Lott captures the uncertainty of forced isolation. Gradually, the album builds. “Prophecy” finally calls in Chang’s drumming, a bass line, and cloaked, wavering harmonies as the lyrics appear to encourage a sort-of rebirth or at least an acceptance.
The kinds of experimentation that have made this band so delightfully unpredictable reveal themselves here too. “Leaves” builds textures atop a scuttling loop, for example. Like the first volume in the trilogy, Tomorrows I, this record includes a number of instrumentals, perhaps serving as connective tissue, maybe the product of the band giving themselves room to explore. They remind the listener of similar excursions found in Carla Dal Forno’s music or Robert Scott’s overlooked masterpiece The Creeping Unknown. Whatever the logic, these tracks offer a bit of relief.
“Out of Wind”, with its meterless piano and harp-like trills, sounds like an awakening. “Bodies”, with its repeated “ooohs” and dub-y bass, is downright euphoric. “Weight of Your Air” is devoid of gravity, as sparse notes stretch and float into black endlessness, frighteningly unavoidable, but no less ecstatic for it. Ultimately, the line “run for your life and don’t look back”, found in the penultimate track “Live Another Life”, feels like the record’s theme. Son Lux appear to be telling us all that there’s a way through this awful time, but where we may end up is far from certain. That another instrumental, the brief, hurtling space and abrupt cut of “Borrowed Eyes”, ends this record on a question mark only makes sense.
The first week of 2021 gave the US the unsurprising, violent apotheosis after months of continually repeated false election fraud claims in the form of an attempted coup by white, misinformed racists instigated by the country’s president during his final weeks in office. This event gives Tomorrow II‘s subtle alerts added resonance and context. If there’s a narrative arc to this trilogy, the upcoming final volume may not offer more than a cautious hope. Yet, such precariousness appears to allow for Son Lux’s most probing, gorgeous music.