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Jerskin Fendrix
Winterreise Patrick Clarke , May 1st, 2020 08:48

Errant godfather to the Brixton Windmill scene, Jerskin Fendrix's debut offers a serpentine dance through different genres and personae, finds Patrick Clarke

For a long time, Jerskin Fendrix has felt like a disembodied name, talked about as something of a godfather of the so-called ‘Brixton Windmill Scene’ and lauded by its progeny like Black Midi and Black Country, New Road but rarely releasing anything himself. He’s been like a distant interstellar object, the scale of its glory quantifiable only by the amount of light distorted by its gravitational pull. By all accounts he is this towering talent – you hear tales of his avant-garde opera staged at the V&A – but for it all you’re always left wondering, what does he actually sound like?

His debut album Winterreise might be expected to answer that question, but instead it paints an elusive portrait. Fendrix switches direction so wildly and so frequently that whenever you think you have him pinned down, he wriggles away and transforms into something completely different. The record’s first track ‘Manhattan’ begins with an elegant flourish of baroque piano, conjuring up the atmosphere of a breezy conservatoire, before it fades into a swampy dirge atop which a grim voice compares itself to Skepta, before it leaps back up into a wonky, shouty electro punk sequence about marriage proposals and buying socks from Uniqlo, and then skids into a clambering section of slow, screamy anthemic emo about not being good enough, finally plunging back down into an off-kilter no-wave guitar solo.

The rest of the record is similarly unstable, mutating and multiplying and shifting out of control. It’s astounding texturally, employing xylophones, strings, unidentifiable noises and synths that sometimes glisten and sometimes gurgle. He is as comfortable with a massive blast of ultra-modern pop as he is plunging into a grisly and dismal abstract soundscape. His voice, too, seems to change with every sentence. On ‘Onigiri’, home to one of those aforementioned brilliant pop choruses, he pitch-shifts it upwards so it becomes childlike and robotic, while on ‘Swamp’ he pitch-shifts them down so they become part of a noirish, Burial-esque swirl. On ‘Black Hair’ he raps in the drawliest, driest mid-Atlantic, and towards the end of ‘Last Night In New York’ he starts yelling to the point he hints at Slaves-ish lad-punk. On ‘I’ll Clean Your Sheets’ he sings honestly and plaintively, and on ‘Depecc’ he mumbles mournfully, close to the mic.

Fendrix’s lyrics are similarly feverish, loaded to the brim with different images and figures from pop culture. He references Kanye West, Ezra Koenig, ‘Nessun dorma’ and The Quietus, compares himself to Skepta, Icarus, Awkwafina, Constance Wu and, on two separate occasions, Nick Cave. As with the music, the images come so disparately and mercurially that it’s better to analyse the way in which they clash than the images themselves. ‘Black Hair’, for example, with its procession of banalities, when coupled with that droning vocal affectation, conjures a unique sort of wooziness that feels genuinely unique, while ‘A Star Is Born’’s many grand statements of intent – “I feel like Nick Cave in Wings Of Desire / I’m not gonna tell you about anyone else tonight / Call the fire service cos I’m on fire / Call me Icarus, I’m getting higher and higher” – begin to pile on top of one another to create one big avalanche of brilliant, blustering arrogance.

The risk with an album this multi-faceted is that it could easily just descend into a muddle as its components clash into one another – like mixing too many colours of paint to get a sludgy brown. However Fendrix’s main success is how that doesn’t happen, how its pace is too blistering and his creativity too electric to ever get bogged down. He expresses himself in so many ways, in such a short space of time, but succeeds in more or less every single one. His beat-making is unique, his instrumentation prolific, and his lyric-writing witty and rich. For all of this, however, you’re still left wondering who, at the core, Jerskin Fendrix really is. The record is as if he’s wearing one lavish, intoxicating disguise after another, but never revealing who lies underneath. Winterreise has proved his brilliance, but it has also only affirmed his status as an enigma.