News From Nowhere
, January 31st, 2013 05:48
It's the feeling I loved as a child when I staggered across the grass, screaming and giddy with joy, after my father had given me a 'helicopter ride', taking my hands and swinging me in the air around him. It's the feeling I experienced the day I rode a rollercoaster nine times with the first real hangover of my life, when the adrenalin pumping through me kept the pain of the previous night's neat Southern Comfort, drunk from a plastic tooth mug, at arm's length for a short but gratifying while before I returned to the toilets to be sick again. And it's the feeling I recognised that day I went diving for the first time and, deep beneath murky water, lost my bearings and panicked, not knowing which way was up and which was down, before I spotted the glimmer of sunshine above.
It's the same disorientating, unnerving, rejuvenating beauty that permeates Darkstar's second album, and I can't imagine life without it.
The hipper amongst you will already be aware of Darkstar for their 2009 single, ''Aidy's Girl Is A Computer' and its accompanying album, North, the following year. I am not one of those people. For me, Darkstar came out of nowhere, their name so suggestive as to colour my perception of them right from the start. I imagined them, preposterously, as some vast, misshapen mass gliding through a galaxy, a trail of silent fire in its wake, the metallic ore in its crust catching the light of distant suns. There were none more otherworldly than they, and the idea that they might be made up of recognisable individuals seemed unthinkable. They were an entity.
Their name was so evocative that the revelation they were a three piece from London brought about a deep sense of anti-climax. Watching the band perform on video in London's Asylum was like being thrown back to earth in leaden boots. It wasn't that they failed to represent some kind of previously unknown, unstoppable force. (They never stood a chance.) It wasn't that they were incapable of capturing the specific alchemy of the song live. (They were.) It was that music like this seems to have come from somewhere else altogether, somewhere utopian – as the title, stolen from William Morris, underlines – where, as David Mitchell's Ursula (in Cloud Atlas) says, “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.“
It's only music, though. It's not really as big as a planet or from another world. I'm overexcited, that's all. That happens sometimes, you see, if sadly not often enough. The thing is, in the wasteland of truly innovative but deeply engaging music, Darkstar's News From Nowhere really shines. It's the kind of record, riddled with familiar tropes but delivered in an often startling fashion, that begs for journalistic similes. Take that critic's mainstay, The Beach Boys, run them through the Darkstar machine, and you've got 'A Day's Pay For A Day's Work': it's like Dennis Wilson's 'Only With You' discovered on one of William Basinski's disintegrating tapes. Pack OMD off to the Caribbean with a Vocoder in their suitcase and you might just end up with the choral melancholy of 'Timeaway'. Stick Animal Collective in a bouncy castle with a case of Mike Tyson's Black Energy drink and you could find yourself listening to something very similar to 'Amplified Ease'.
The point is that there's plenty on News From Nowhere that you might feel you recognise, and yet it's all delivered within a new framework, pieced together meticulously in bizarre, bewildering but ultimately invigorating patterns. It's graceful in its disequilibrium, pursuing eccentric circuits like a bird caught in air currents over a cliff's perilous edge, swooping and diving in unforeseen directions and yet somehow always in command of its movements.
Consider 'Armonica', a recording woozier than Serge Gainsbourg facing Whitney Houston: it starts with detuned chords on a tape overloaded with wow and flutter, its drum track initially primitive and repetitive, later coated in a thin layer of percussive fizz, before a vocal – stuttering, gargled, sped up, slowed down, whirling down a plughole – plunges into the mix like a drunk sailor jumping overboard. Its chorus is a simple, oddly triumphant piano melody that flows on into the second verse, after which the song collapses in on itself like a black hole, leaving behind a growing hum that begins to sparkle, celestially, taking off finally into a glittering firmament. Like its parent album, it demands extravagant conceits. There is no simple way to describe it.
What all the songs on News From Nowhere have in common is a baffling, mystical elegance, both independently and, to an even greater extent, within the flow of the record. Many of them are built upon a minimalist foundation – a one-fingered keyboard melody, the repeated use of a single sample, a resonant swathe of synth – out of which blooms something far more complex and enigmatic. There's the transcendent opener, 'Light Body Clock Starter' – the sound of a synthetic soul ascending in the dark towards the heavens, don't you know – and the feather light, almost sacred tickle of 'Young Heart's' and '-'. There's the music box meets toy-town industrial playfulness of 'You Don't Need A Weatherman', a psychedelic, Far Eastern, Disney fantasy, and the Eno-esque, slow motion ripples of 'Hold Me Down', which one could imagine Bon Iver creating had he been born a century later. And, as impressive as any, there's 'Bed Music (North View)', which shimmers with a nocturnal radiance before the rattle of leather skinned drums breaks the spell, and – our lead boots falling magically to the ground – we float off, rising above rooftops, drifting over forests, gliding ever upwards, unsure as to whether we'll ever make it back down, less certain still whether we want to.
It's unsettling, in other words, but addictive, a sleeping tablet that brings on vivid, disturbing yet always awe-inspiring dreams. It celebrates the transformation of fear into thrill through the knowledge and safety of resolution, like being pushed off a skyscraper and discovering wings. Though it may or may not be better than anything they've done before, that really doesn't matter. The rush will pass, but for now News From Nowhere is – or, one might argue, really ought to be – altogether beyond words.