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Jamie Lidell
Compass Ross Pounds , May 21st, 2010 08:42

So much for following the same path. Jamie Lidell's days as one half of highbrow glitch boffins Super Collider appeared long behind him with the release of 2008's JIM, a set of neo-soul so buttery smooth and slick that it earned him a support slot with Elton John and a prime place on the Radio 2 drivetime playlist. But somewhere behind all the proclamations about wanting to be a popstar and feeling that he'd paid his dues to music of a more cerebral bent, the critical indifference his sophomore effort was met with must have hurt. His first solo album proper, 2005's Multiply, was rapturously received, and rightly so. It appeared to herald the arrival of someone genuinely unique, a man with the finest white soul voice this side of Mick Hucknall but without the burden of being a massive wanker (or, as Steve Coogan's Tony Wilson memorably put it in 24 Hour Party People: "His music's rubbish and he's a ginger.") Lidell, crucially, kept his experimental urges at least partially on show on Multiply, the album full of looped effects and odd snippets of percussion, simmering just underneath the surface, covered loosely, decadently by his silken voice, like cashmere draped over a naked body, the naughty lurking dangerously close to the nice.

By the time JIM arrived, however, that experimentalism was gone, replaced by a deadening, FM-ready blandness that betrayed the genuine creatively of its creator. It was, and remains, a hugely frustrating album, something that should have been a huge step forward but instead now seems, at best, an embarrassing misstep, an ill-advised tap on the shoulder of the kind of person who only buys their music from Sainsbury's. And now, five years later, Lidell is trying, finally, to make the kind of follow-up that Multiply promised, and richly deserves.

In any other year, a Jamie Lidell album would be right up at the top of Warp's hitlist, as close to a sure thing as it has. But 2010 is proving to be something of an annus mirabilis for the venerable label, a remarkably fertile year which has already provided us with works of great promise from Gonjasufi and Lonelady as well as a ludicrously good, genre-redefining masterpiece from Flying Lotus. In other words, Warp is in rude health for the first time in quite a while and a failure from Lidell wouldn't be the end of the world. With Compass, then, he has rather a lot to prove.

True to form, it's an album that, thankfully, bears only a few similarities with its predecessor. It's an altogether more schizophrenic set, at times gleefully bizarre, and one lacking a certain cohesion. Stuck somewhere between the heady highs of Multiply and a roll call of aesthetic allusions and winks, it's an album which seems to be lost in itself, not quite knowing which direction to turn in and then ultimately deciding to just run off in all of them, all at once. And although that's not ideal, it's no bad thing. It's certainly more intimate than anything Lidell has done before, as track titles like 'Completely Exposed' and 'I Can Love Again' hint at and songs like the title track and album closer 'You See My Light' go on to prove.

This isn't Lidell the smooth soulman, all smouldering eyes and three-day stubble. This is Lidell the jilted lover, the hopeless romantic, bearing his soul rather than aping genres, looking back with regret, painstakingly detailing failures of the past. "And now I know/The only compass that I need/Is the one/That leads back to you," he sings on the title track, a song a million miles away from the smooth, supple but ultimately soulless tracks all over JIM, his voice here ravaged and despairing, pining for something seemingly irrevocably lost. It's almost a torch song, something that wouldn't sound out of place were it coming out of Antony Hegarty's mouth, stripped, for the first half at least, of all the technical trickery in favour of a simple strummed guitar. As it builds, it becomes filled with Morricone-esque flourishes, strings and horns floating in the background, accompanied gradually with the tricks of old: looped voices, various percussive effects, star-soft twinkles. It's the album's centrepiece, and a reminder of what Lidell can do when he puts his mind to it. It doesn't sound like anything he's done before and a signal of what he's truly capable of. It's the progression that should have followed after Multiply.

The rest of the album doesn't quite reach the heights of 'Compass', due in no small part to its inability to settle into some kind of rhythm. The production, mostly from Beck but with a helping hand from Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor, is superb but erratic (much like Beck's underrated Midnite Vultures, to which Compass bears a fair few similarities), veering wildly from the sassy, G-Funk inspired likes of 'She Needs Me', coming on like some lost D'Angelo or Maxwell track, to the ridiculously funky 'I Wanna Be Your Telephone', which sounds like some unholy union between Prince, George Clinton, and Sly Stone, a song dripping so heavily with sex and sweat that it feels almost indecent listening to it. When he's not pining for women, it seems, they're most definitely still on Lidell's mind in one way or the other. 'The Ring', meanwhile, could have fallen right out of California in the mid-90s, its throbbing bass and distorted guitar calling to mind 2Pac and Dr. Dre's imperious 'California Love' (as well as, more worryingly, P. Diddy's 'Bad Boy For Life' and Jamiroquai's 'Deeper Underground', but we'll leave that one there).

One gets the sense that, in a live setting, the tracks that comprise Compass would be perfect, a strange mix of straight-up party jams and fragile, intimate moments that seem to be an insight into a mind not quite sure in which direction it's heading. Album closer 'You See My Light' is a case in point – a lo-fi dirge covered in tape hiss, and completely different to anything else on the album, it sounds a lot like some lost gospel recording found decaying in a church attic before being dug out, a track of hymnal, aching beauty at times eerily reminiscent of both Sam Cooke and Spirtualized. It's a document of realisation and an ode to an unnamed woman, a saviour who once was lost but now is found, a woman, one senses, who Lidell won't be letting go of again any time soon. Barely audible as he sings "In this moment/I truly understand/how much I love you," we finally, clearly find a man at peace with himself. It might have taken a while for him to get there, but it seems as though Lidell might finally be on the right path once again.