Two tracks, about 40 minutes. That’s all it takes for avant-garde composer William Basinski to properly eulogize David Bowie in his recently released album, A Shadow in Time. Yes, Bowie was “just a man,” and yes, the tweet-mourning after his death became tiresome. But the emergence of this minimalistic, sublime album validates, or at least pardons, the dolorous hoopla surrounding that collective depression.
Basinski has been a longstanding disciple of current trends. This is the same artist who brought decay to the masses with his famously serendipitous The Disintegration Loops (2002), a tape loop so achingly sad and beautiful that it’s the last thing they pipe through the wall-speakers when you exit Manhattan’s 9/11 memorial museum.
Basinski’s greatest ability is to reroute the conduits we normally follow when listening to a piece of music, without any time-signature trickery. Basinski drops the listener in the middle of something, with definite momentum, but indefinite destination.
The result is natant audio. To embrace Basinksi’s music is to embrace one’s role as aquanaut. Take the song, “For David Robert Jones”—you cannot listen to this conventionally. When the drunk, meandering saxophone starts dancing from avenue to avenue, with only a faint choir cushioning its passage, the listener either swims or sinks (both of these options offer distinct pleasure).
The opening piece, “A Shadow in Time,” is similarly formless. It offers a tributary of sound that recedes in its closing five, allowing a piano dirge to carry listeners.
As an antidote to cultural acedia, A Shadow in Time is potent. Basinski has proven once again that that which devastates us may also benefit us.
The mass proliferation of so-called “chill-out” and “downtempo” music has demolished the skyline. It left in its place a hut-littered savanna, each roof concealing a homespun producer capable of MIDI-channel toying, tremolo-adjusting, and sine wave- tweaking so unnecessarily precise for what is ostensibly boom-clap, that the creation process ends up looking like if Benoit Mandelbrot took a Rorschach inkblot test.
Bonobo, the fittingly ancestral alias of UK deejay Simon Green, does not escape these inner-world pratfalls. However, the redemptive qualities of his latest album, Migration, persist—fenced off as they are.
The slip-slip of “Outlier” and African-heartland-turned-dancefloor-dinger “Bambro Koyo Ganda” evoke something prehistoric. Meanwhile, the clubby mumbling of “Break Apart” and vocal looping on “Ontario” recall Radiohead’s less popular 2001 B-sides. The cozy number, “Second Sun,” on the other hand, plays like the soundtrack to The Revenant’s sequel, in which the brutalized frontiersmen melt s’mores around a bonfire.
Migration is a fundamentally decadent album, one that wears its near-obsessive pop, sizzle, and splash like cheap concealer. These twelve tracks label themselves as introspective, contemplative, and maybe even a little glum. But the album then transmits its subtlety by way of millisecond-by-millisecond panache, which is like firing a flare-gun during a gondola ride.