What makes a great collaboration? At its worst, the collabo is a marketing tool and predictable, at its best, a creative detour and a catalyst for inspiration. For Thievery Corporation’s fourth full-length of original material, the group turns increasingly to the aid of some handsome strangers to distill their prime influences of African diaspora music into a modern beat dub. The Corporation, the duo of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, draws up an eclectic guest list and merges it into a characteristic chill-out collage. While the Flaming Lips, South Asian superstar Gunjan, and David Byrne anticipate a meeting of major minds, the results are admittedly subdued and subtle. Similar to how recent celeb-fest Handsome Boy Modeling School wrapped odd orgies in the loveage of Paul and Dan, the Corporation weaves each artist into its recognizable patchwork. Each contribution blends neatly together, and creates a cohesive whole.
The Cosmic Game unfolds in a steady and consistent manner, much like a mixtape segmented neatly by mood and theme. “Marching the Hate Machines (Into the Sun)” opens the album with a notable appearance from an Air-headed Wayne Coyne. Like Yoshimi sipping Virgin Suicides, the Corporation crafts hollow atmospheres, lonely guitar leads, and twinkling keyboards. The peaceful backing provides a counterpoint to the confrontational title and upfront lyrics: “Let’s start by, making it clear / Who is the enemy here / And we’ll show them / That it’s not them / Who is superior.” The song’s chorus continues on to dream an abstract Armageddon for the negative ones, a bold statement from a group associated more with chill-outs and sessions. Given the current political rhetoric, the schism in social discourse, and the group’s base in Washington, D.C., the tension is more appropriate than out-of-place. However, the Corporation sticks to its tried and true moves, and bathes Coyne’s critique in such cozy warmth that the assault feels more like a well-oiled Trojan Horse.
Similar to how the Corporation molds a track around Coyne’s recent maturation to slick-psych, the production throughout the album is tailored around the guests. The hard-breaking “Warning Shots” is unusually aggressive for the two, but its knocking drums, punchy guitar accents, and Tech9 loop back Sleepy Wonder’s underwater toasting with necessary heat. The feverish gargle in the first half of the song also works within the context of the album by detonating the ambivalence established in the opening track. Gunjan’s warm voice gradually weaves in and replaces Sleepy’s rasp, transitioning to the soothing cool-down of the lightly tripping “Revolution Solution”. In contrast to the complete immersion of its guests into the music on “Shots”, the Corporation provides sparse backing for Perry Farrell, whose voice functions as an instrument, channeling Horace Andy through a modern Madchester beat dub. Singing now in a subdued tone, filling out the lower end of his range and displaying a throaty tenor not often heard, Farrell sounds convincing. Admittedly, when he sings, “I hope for comfort / But I never felt safe”, his beat down Babylon sermon sounds like fodder from the privileged hippie camp, but crisp production supports Farrell’s diatribe dance with just the right amount of substance.
The title track “The Cosmic Game” strips vocals and any specific rhetoric, functioning as a moment of respite that actually brings the album into focus. Although each voiceless track functions as a similar transition piece, “Game” reintroduces the group’s career-long exploration of South Asian, Caribbean, and Afro-Latin roots. The quiet “Shiva” follows as Gunjan stretches out on one of her several features, fusing modernist reading with sleek mod production. Notch, featured on the Corporation’s last album, takes a step deeper into the pocket by heavily buttering his toasts on “Amerimacka”; his critical warning shot is lover’s rock smooth, but runs roots deep: “If she had only stood for love / That would have been enough / But now we all burn in her plan”. Although “Amerimacka”‘s critique parallels the tone of the first section of Game, it contrasts with the Corporation’s trademark subtlety; Dark Days drums swaying below slow-mo bass, and keys and strings washed in echo are the group’s bread and butter. The effects become tired toward the end, because they are used repeatedly and often in a predictable manner — echo is often in triplet and eighth increments — but this seems more a product of digitized quantizing than any fault of the duo’s creativity. Although the majority of the album does not contain such thematic consistency as the opening salvo, the whole’s abstract exploration of ambivalence and soft funk suits the group well.
The Corporation proceeds to sail down the Atlantic coastline for a party cruise. “Ambicion Eterna” breezes through with minimal hand percussion and soft vocals courtesy of Vermie Varela. The group ventures further south with the nu-brasilo-beat “Pela Janela”. The duo avoids the common mistake of giving into drum machine four-on-the-floors, but instead allow live percussion to carry the bump, loping bass to do the dance, and wafting vocals to set the mood. Continuing the tour is “Sol Tapado”, which breaks berimbau similar to how Cornershop funkified raga, while DC virtuoso Patrick de Santos moves the crowd with casual rhythm. Nimble bongos and bouncing bass trace the Corporation’s path back to Nigeria as Shako David Byrne struts his tail feather through “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Horns punctuate the melody, keys wash and echo throughout, and Byrne’s flat intonation modernizes Afro-Beat, making one of the more progressive collaborations of the album.
The album closes with punches and caresses that ultimately bring Game in for a rocksteady landing. Gunjan sways in and out of “Doors of Perception”, a guiro driven raga racer, as Sista Pat delivers throaty incantations over “Wires and Watchtowers'” pumping drums and echoing horns. Gunjan returns one last time on “The Supreme Illusion” to deliver quawwali-like pipes to dutty dancehall beatdowns and skull-snapping breaks. The final descent is gentle, as “The Time We Lost Our Way” cools out with muted trumpets and acoustic guitars. The Bacharach-Morricone vibe gives the composition a cinematic quality that leads naturally into the soft closer, “A Gentle Dissolve.”
Thievery Corporation succeeds on The Cosmic Game by using collaborations to build on an established repertoire of instrumental music. Vocals have held an increasing presence in the group’s work, but the Corporation uses each voice as an instrument, namely Gunjan, to push for newer sounds. The submergence of superior talents, like the oft-mentioned Gunjan, into the Corporation’s palette is unfortunate for the guests, considering their ability to stand as centerpieces. However, for Thievery’s purposes, the results are a fine distillation of their record interests. The overall quality of the work does not amount to the group’s finest work, but considering the juggling act required to coordinate such talent, the Corporation sets forth on the best foot once again.