UNKLE is not exactly a band but a dynamic collective. Since 1994, UNKLE has functioned as an ever-evolving collaboration. Early members such as K.U.D.O. and DJ Shadow left during the early years, while later members such as Psychonauts’ Pablo Clements joined the collective decades later. Even more, every album offers a litany of notable features, from Thom Yorke, Kool G Rap, to Nick Cave. Through all of this movement, one founding member has remained, that is, James Lavelle continues to develop UNKLE as an ethos and practice of collaboration.
Following 2017’s The Road, Pt. 1, The Road: Part II (Lost Highway) is the second installment of a developing trilogy. The latest two-part album continues Lavelle’s work as the lead composer and producer among a long list of collaborators—the album features Mïnk, Elliott Power, the Clash’s Mick Jones, Primal Scream’s Andrew Innes, Queens of the Stone Age’s Jon Theodore, and many more. As the vast collective of collaborators joins for spoken word, orchestral ballads, and nostalgic trip hop cuts, The Road – Part II compiles as many ideas as it does features.
The Road: Part II (Lost Highway) continues Lavelle’s ambitious trilogy. “Imagine something like the Odyssey or Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey,” he told Clash. Indeed, as the mid-part of the trilogy, the two-part album mimics the central initiation of a David Lynchian epic, as alluded by the album title. Running for about an hour and a half, the 22 compositions stretch a long road of trials and ambiguity. It is an entwined, lost highway of unforeseen movements. For instance, the centerpieces of the first-part wander from the trip hop “The Other Side”, the piano ballad “Feel More / With Less”, to the psychedelic “Find an Outsider”. Much like a David Lynch film, the album is open to scatter into an array of disassociations. It is during these disjointed journeys that Lavelle and the collaborators thrive.
The Road: Part II (Lost Highway) is one of Lavelle’s most demanding projects. With the ever-growing list of collaborators and increasingly ambitious concept for the trilogy, Lavelle navigates a multitude of concerns, structurally and aesthetically. “Crucifixion / a Prophet”, alone, features Twiggy, Ian Astbury, Tom Smith, Troy Van Leeuwen, Chris Goss, Justin Stanley, Mïnk, Eska, and Boc. Nearly impossible to discern where each artist’s contribution lies, the vast influences somehow converge for a trip hop turned psych-rock jam, filled with ethereal key changes and disintegrating guitar solos. Such inexplicable harmonies demonstrate Lavelle’s deft abilities as a composer.
Yet, some of the album’s simplest songs are the most memorable. For instance, “Ar.Mour” plays with our memories of the early UNKLE. Embracing the old, chopped synths, orchestral stabs, and thin horns pounce over a booming drum loop. Mïnk sings a patterned chorus to imitate the effect of a sample, and Elliott Power whispers his verse in a determined fervor, “an appetite for the rage”. The minimalistic trip hop cut rivals the many dense, orchestral ballads of the album. Even though Lavelle has generally moved onto composing elaborate art pop, his legendary touch for hip-hop persists as an integral tool.
On the opener “Iter VI: Prologue”, the spoken word piece suggests, “after you walk the road, everything becomes clear.” However, once we reach the end of The Road: Part II (Lost Highway), its myriad of ideas is not resolved but left in ambiguity. Of course, if we were to apply Campbell’s structure of the hero’s journey, as Lavelle suggested, act two merely tests and tempts. The prologue, then, is misleading on purpose, perhaps. The true end of the road will come on the third installment of the trilogy. Lavelle says, “The third record to come is basically about coming home; wherever that may be.” Indeed, The Road: Part II (Lost Highway and its many wreathing journeys leave wide open the possibilities of the trilogy, garnering anticipation for yet another incarnation of UNKLE.