Is there anything wrong with nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake? No, but if an artist can use nostalgia for inspiration and then move beyond its boundaries, that is often even better. James Hinton, the Brooklynite who creates electronic music under the moniker The Range, seems to know this, consciously or not. His fourth album, Mercury, may be his most nostalgic to date. Yet it is also his boldest and most fully realized.
As Hinton freely admits, the sound of Mercury harks back to the first golden age of electronic dance music in the mid-to-late 1990s. That was a time when the likes of Orbital, Aphex Twin, and Future Sound of London ruled the airways in clubs and bedrooms and often made their way onto mainstream radio.
Mercury’s influences are apparent from the first track, “Bicameral”. Some moody synth tones waft up, and then a trebly, period-specific beat kicks in. The clipped, metallic snare, tambourine, and dubby bassline seem like a direct homage to Future Sound of London’s iconic “Papua New Guinea”. From there, the track takes on a life of its own, but it’s an unmistakable statement about where the album’s roots lie.
Other tracks make references to different classic sounds and styles. “Not For Me”, with its Steve Reich-like arpeggio cycling throughout, the shimmering “Cantor”, and the self-explanatory “1995” have a more brooding, midtempo feel that is informed by trip-hop. “Relegate” and “Every Good Thing” employ squelchy Roland 303-type bass sounds and kinetic, rave-like synths. “A Tree Day” chimes with the kind of mathematic precision of classic Orbital, while “Balm” is more bleepy and experimental.
Crucially, though, Mercury is much more than a “spot the reference” exercise. Hinton underpins everything with surging analog bass synths that tie the album together. The album’s genesis was fraught with isolation and depression, which Hinton called “a mutually agreed upon separation from the world”. That comes across in the minor keys and a general mood that modulates from wide-eyed reflection to impassioned emoting.
Much of what makes the album’s emotional impact so substantial is also what helps it transcend mere nostalgia: the vocals. As ever, Hinton finds them by scouring social media, looking for voices, snippets, and words that fit the feeling of his music. On Mercury, these vocals sound less gimmicky and more naturally integrated than before, from the grime-influenced rapping of “Urethane” to the impassioned wailing of “Cantor”.
Nowhere on Mercury do retro music and found-sound vocals merge more powerfully and successfully than on “Ricercar”. Not a Cockney pronunciation of “racecar”, the title refers to a type of classical composition that often indicates a prelude or, literally, “searching out”. The track’s rhythmic underpinning comes from the ‘90s by way of another decade altogether: The Turtles’ pun-tastic, 1968-vintage “I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts)”. Hinton takes that primal, almost tribal, unbelievably hip hop-foreseeing beat and works in vocals from an Instagram cover of a track by R&B singer and television personality Tamar Braxton. The result is a brilliant, heartfelt chronicle of heartbreak, with the unnamed singer lamenting, “Why did you just turn your back / When I stood by you through everything that you went through?” As for vintage electronica references, “Ricercar” is in the immediate vicinity of Massive Attack’s mighty “Unfinished Sympathy”.
Despite or maybe because of its moodiness, Mercury is an engrossing, danceable, and listenable album. Clearly, it was borne not just from nostalgia but also from pain and catharsis, and this is what makes it one of the year’s best.