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It's Alright Between Us As It Is The Quietus , December 21st, 2017 17:17

Hans-Peter Lindstrøm's fifth studio album is diverse in terms of style, form, quality, and execution, but what awaits at its close is delightful. By Ravi Ghosh

Hans-Peter Lindstrøm’s relationship with dance music is an impressive example of running before you can walk. For a man who claims he did not buy any house music until 2001, 2003’s Untitled EP is mature and measured — a pleasant if unspectacular introduction into the craft. Here was a man who would rather innovate than imitate, and there’s little doubt that not shouldering the burden of being a living dance music encyclopaedia gave a carefree zest to his early work. Fourteen years on though, the odd luxury of this lack of exposure has surely dissipated, after all there’s no way that anyone can produce so extensively, have such a fruitful collaboration with Prins Thomas, remix for the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Roxy Music, and still be considered a newcomer to the scene to which he has given so much.

Attempts to give Lindstrøm’s work a definitive genre have been as amusing as they have been outlandish. ‘Space-disco’ seems to be the one with the most traction, though over the years the prefixes ‘epic’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘cosmic’ have also found their way into literature about the producer. It’s Alright Between Us As It Is forces more yet terminology to be brought into the fray, as its the closest thing to pop music that Lindstrøm has produced thus far. One reason for this is credited appearances from vocalists on the fourth, sixth, and eighth tracks of the album. This creative decision in itself by no condemns the album, as Lindstrøm has comfortably integrated lyrics into his music before, featuring his own vocal on 2012’s ‘De Javu’ to great effect, but it does mean we adjust our expectations according to its new approach.

‘Shinin’ is the album’s lead single featuring Grace Hall, and although it begins with a promising UK garage-esque drum beat, its bite is gradually extinguished as the vocal is introduced. The demotion of the drum track is felt more and more heavily as we start to pick out Hall’s lyrics: “Sitting all on the stairs, wishing you could take me there” is hardly an inspired opening, and the over-production of the vocal means that it bullies the initial beat with little creative right to do so. The song is a patchwork of heterosexual courtship clichés, not only directing it away from its more dance-orientated foundations, but meaning that Lindstrøm is demanding the components of a pop song to give a cogent and exciting product for a full seven minutes. After Hall has sung her last line: “All I really want is you, what else am I supposed to do” the track continues as an instrumental for a further minute, but this period feels hollow and laboured. The drum sequence from the opening has now been completely buried, and the closing section sees Lindstrøm wrestling with his own indecision about what kind of track this actually is; it’s too long and has too much early broken beat promise for strict pop, but ultimately has too little firepower for dance.

Lindstrøm of course does have the ability to negotiate a vocal into a piece of dance music without the difficulties that he encounters with both ‘Shinin’ and ‘But Isn’t It’, such as on ‘Magik’, again from 2012’s Six Cups of Rebel. The difference between his attempts on It’s Alright Between Us As It Is and ‘Magik’ are essentially down to the weighting of different elements of the track. The latter’s aren’t particularly inventive, and the track’s reliance on the phrase “It’s a kind of magic” may at times have Queen purists squirming, but crucially, they are pushed back and complement, rather than overpower, the other drums and synths. Also, a pretty much unintelligible male vocal punctuates the build ups of the song. Not knowing what the voice (possibly Lindstrøm’s) is saying is a reality which doesn’t trouble us on ‘Magik’ - it hasn’t been elevated to the extent that we need to engage with its every detail, it remains somewhat unpolished, almost clumsy, but allows the other instruments to expand and fill the eight minutes, rather than struggle to find daylight as they sadly do on ‘Shinin’. ‘But Isn’t It’ fares slightly better with its 80s new romantic sound, but it ultimately suffers again owing to the vocal.

Penultimate track ‘Bungl (Like a Ghost)’ features a powerful vocal from Jenny Hval, which grips the listener within the first two lines as an ambient drone bubbles underneath: “I look into the camera and feel black metal bulging behind blue eyes. I chose the other path to be dead, so when I held her she would feel me like a ghost”. Immediately Lindstrøm is giving us something to interrogate, something to question, rather than merely having exhausted cliché wash over us as is the case with the previously mentioned tracks. If one looks down the lens of a camera someone else is using, surely you see blue eyes bulging behind black metal? Not the other way around.

Hval and Lindstrøm challenge us to engage with this inversion, and the lyrical repetition that follows allows these ideas to germinate; the track’s evolution is one marked by its own strangeness, and Hval’s voice is the perfect texture for the self-reflexive lines that follow: “This is a phrase, this is my inscription, this is my handwriting” she sings, as a restless synth line operates in the background. Hval’s falsetto provides the element of the unknown which operates so well in ‘Magik’; we can barely piece together what she is saying, and even if we could, our processing power is already being fully occupied by the winding darkness of her main lyric: “This is my gravestone, I put it on my back and carry it around with me” she utters. The track is excellent, with simple, rolling piano licks coming in from two minutes onwards too, a favourite technique of Lindstrøm, so well executed with long time collaborator Prins Thomas on tracks like ‘Mighty Girl’. Like Kelly Lee Owens on her self titled debut this year (their voices are very similar), Hval’s vocal complements and enriches the synth and drum tracks perfectly; on ‘Bungl (Like a Ghost)’, Lindstrøm has abandoned the paint-by-numbers pop vocal management which so detriments the previous two tracks, and has created a truly thought-provoking and accomplished song.

Last track ‘Under Trees’ is equally as enjoyable, beginning with a techno-inspired hi-hat and a trusted Lindstrøm piano chord sequence. The drum sits on top of a droning bass and rather cryptically conjures up images of a Ben UFO set; underneath a deftly produced piano lick gives the track a raw edge — the piano feels un-quantised, unrehearsed, and so cuts through the steady drum machine noise beautifully. The second half becomes increasingly dark and atmospheric, again nodding towards big-room rolling techno tracks, before it fades out. The track undoubtedly leaves you wanting more from the album, but this is mostly because its last two tracks are the obvious strong points; five or six more in the same vein, and a trimming of some earlier songs, would reform the album almost beyond recognition, but would be a highly charged and exciting concept.

‘Spire’ is a further iteration of Lindstrøm’s talent as a producer of ‘space-disco’; he’s a pioneer of the genre, creating swooping, almost film score like tracks. Their ability to fill a room, or fill a head with images of space and discovery, give them this cinematic quality. They are consistently uplifting and triumphant. Perhaps it is a curse of Lindstrøm’s extensive production work that ‘Drift’ and ‘Tensions’ feel forgettable. They are not especially weak in any area, but struggle to make a lasting impression owing perhaps to their over-production; things feel too ordered, safe almost, as if a drum beat slightly out of time here or there may refresh the listening experience somewhat. The temptation to abandon the tracks in favour of his earlier work, his collaborations with Prins Thomas for example are particularly strong, is doubtless harsh, but Lindstrøm has put himself in this position through years of inventive production. Perhaps we owe it to him to give the album more time to take effect on us.

It’s Alright Between Us As It Is is an album of variation. ‘But Isn’t It’ and ‘Shinin’ are weak, but this is a miscalculation in production and uninspired lyric writing, as opposed to anything which puts any lasting worry in our mind about Lindstrøm’s abilities. The work is not his most creative, he’s not redrawing any of the lines of genre which he himself first traced with previous works. And that’s okay, firstly because what proportion of albums actually do that? And secondly, because in ‘Bungl (Like A Ghost)’ and ‘Under Trees’, he has created two outstanding pieces of electronic music in their own right.