Of the changes that have occurred in my life in the past year, one of them gives me the opportunity to make the drive between the Twin Cities and Madison every month or so. While the trip is by no means short I do look forward to it in part because it gives me a chance to be by myself and really listen to music which is something that the rest of my excessive number of hobbies do not always allow much time for.
This past weekend I bought BT’s new album “These Hopeful Machines” and listened to it almost exclusively on both legs of the trip. I’ve been listening to his music for nearly a decade after a friend had recommended a couple of particular tracks from one of his earlier albums to me and it has been interesting to hear the slow change of style and technique over that time. The All Music Guide calls his early style “Epic House” and I would be hard pressed to argue with that particularly apt description, but as they note after his early albums things began to change. Instead of the huge, contiguous slabs of sound the music began to become ever more jagged and full of surprising textures that were both challenging to the casual listener but left enough harmonic accessibility for even a modicum of attention to pay off with grandiose sonic landscapes. At this point it appears that “This Binary Universe” was the apogee of that trend with it’s glitch ridden orchestra of sounds providing a seemingly endless tapestry of deep introspection.
“These Hopeful Machines” is an interesting work in that it feels like a blending of those first epic sounds in “IMA” or “ESCM” with the rhythmic sensibility of Universe’s more successful pieces. This is undeniably an album made to sound good to the ears of the dance floor set while leaving more than enough depth for those of us who listen in less active ways and there is a lot here to listen to with a run time over two CDs of nearly two solid hours and a relatively well put together through-line between tracks. (I found it particularly telling that the version available for purchase through Microsoft’s Zune music store was just two tracks, one for each disc.) I personally found most of the music to be very good with the only thorough disappointment being the final track which is a mediocre and, frankly, over-produced cover of The Psychadelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You”. From the abrupt and powerful entrance of “Suddenly” to the blippy fun of “The Rose of Jericho” to the epic pop drive of “The Unbreakable” this is excellent music with typically enveloping emotional depth.
As much as I have been enjoying the album there are definitely elements that take away from the experience and make me wonder if this isn’t a good view of the back side of a particularly tall mountain of a career even aside from the aforementioned final track. With the rare exception of the occasional nice turn of phrase BT’s impenetrably feeler-y lyrics have never been something to really write home about and none of those exceptions show up here. The lyrics in the chorus of “Suddenly” are particularly baffling though I’m certain that several people will have very good and entirely contradictory explanations about what “And I love it when you fall… to me! Suddenly.” actually means. The sudden chorus in “Forget Me” sung by his young daughter also comes across as simply odd rather than any possible intention I can think of.
However the most striking failing that is present all through the album is the one I alluded to in the title for this post: BT has gotten to the point in his career that he obviously doesn’t see the need to allow an editor of any sort meddle in his art and the result is the poorer for it. I feel a bit awkward saying that with the evidence of my own bellicose text and the knowledge that some of my favorite pieces of music are long winded ramblings through sound that by any other measure are the most egoistical of embellishments in the Ambient, Trance, or Contemporary Orchestral genres. The comparison that keeps coming to mind is with Sufjan Stevens’ recent “The BQE” which I had a chance to listen to in some depth on a similar Madison trip last fall. Stevens’ has never been known for having an economical notion about his music but where he succeeded in “The BQE” with his just so movements, BT manages to overstay his welcome more than once and in the particular case of “Every Other Way”, and to a lesser extent “The Light In Things”, he makes the middle of the first album turn into several opportunities to wonder why he didn’t just cut out the five or six decent fragments of ideas and just keep them in a box until he had time to fully develop them into something worth listening to. The biggest disappointment is that the core of “Every Other Way” could be one of the better tracks if not for all the tacked on aural wankery.
All in all “These Hopeful Machines” is hardly an unheralded triumph but it is certainly a great work by a mature master of electronic music and I will always remember driving through the rolling hills of west-central Wisconsin and watching the sun peek out behind the rain clouds and slowly flood the land with the same radiance that was peaking at about the 1:30 mark of “The Emergency” and spurred my way home with it’s intrinsic feeling of good and connectedness.