Wolfgang Tillmans

Build From Here

The new album from the celebrated photographer is delivered with a disarming frankness and a fresh visual sensibility, writes Skye Butchard

Turner Prize-winning artist Wolfgang Tillmans doesn’t find purpose in the act of photography. Instead, photography is “a tool for me to describe the presence or the feel of an object or a life situation,” as he told The Guardian this month. There are many musicians who feel the same – that music is a tool to express a specific feeling, time or texture where words won’t do. Pop music and photography are immediate sensory mediums which can be disarmingly accessible and universal. That’s their strength. They can communicate at scale.

For Tillmans, making music was largely a private act, until Frank Ocean asked to use an egregious sample of his track ‘Device Control’ for the record Endless. You can hear why Ocean was interested. Tillmans writes with frankness and sincerity. His singing is unflashy, but that lack of pretension makes him a direct and characterful presence.

In the time since ‘Device Control’, Tillmans has become more present in his songs. His debut, Moon in Earthlight, had the spirit of audio photography – snapshots of found sounds, blended with dance beats and pop melodies to create the sense of capturing a memory. The heavy use of field recordings was perhaps a self-conscious way to obscure the artist at the centre.

On Build From Here Tillmans makes music with less room to hide. He pulls from formative experiences with techno and new wave. Not all of it works, but there’s a satisfying thematic throughline. The album moves from hopeful ambience to fractured dance, and eventually a live-band sound, confidently underlining it’s titular motivation to rebuild.

Tillmans retains his endearing sincerity on ‘Regratitude’, where his homespun take on a Moroder stomper is more reflective and weathered by time. ‘We Are Not Going Back’ rallies against the spectre of fascism in its chorus (“No turning back the clocks”). While his semi-spoken verses and disco bass groove read a little clunky, they also clearly came from a real person wrestling with something.

‘Morning Light’ showcases his occasional skill for melodies which use restraint as a source of comfort. His drum loops and soft pads don’t need instrumental oomph to be felt – just a delicate sentiment sung over the top of them. ‘Not Telling a Friend’ could have used that touch in its overbearing repetition of a single lyric.

The record’s turn to dark new wave goes over well, such as on ‘Grüne Linien’, recorded with his band Fragile in 2018. It’s not the only time he looks to past work: ‘There’s More That Connects Us’ is reworked from his debut. Here, it’s more fully realised, with gorgeous new keyboard and drum parts. Tillmans shows his music not just to be a capturing of snapshots, but a fluid conversation with himself and with time.

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