Review: BT’s “The Lost Art of Longing”
I’m fan-friends with the artist I’m reviewing. I went to a lightly advertised meet-and-greet thing with him and his side project with bandmate Christian Burns of BBMak (remember “Back Here” from the late ’90s? I did without knowing its name) where it turned out I was the only other attendee. So I’ve had an hour’s conversation with said artist, he’s bought me an Italian soda, and as one of the many fans he texts with via community.com‘s interface, we chat on the semi-regular. He likes this song of mine, for instance.
When we were wrapping up the meeting last year, I said, “I don’t know if you remember, but you retweeted a review I did of your 2010 album.” Not only did he remember it and was excited to meet me, he explained that it was one of the first reviews that came out of the album and that he regularly cited that review to people. Nine years on, he knew that review better than I did, which means it might be the best remembered blogspot dot com content ever.
Well, on August 14 BT – collaborator with folks like Peter Gabriel and Howard Jones, movie scorer for films such as Monster, and producer of N’SYNC on that good song of theirs – put out his umpteenth studio album The Lost Art of Longing. Given that it’s been ten years since the last review, and given that I post things here sometimes (and given that he’s excited about this review’s existence), it’s entirely fitting to give the new album a spin and tell you what it’s like.
Part of the background of this album as I see it – considering the interactions I’ve had and the three advance tracks off this album – is that BT is at a contented phase of his life. He has his studio set up exactly how he wants it (here’s a tour) – including the original Fairlight synthesizer used in Tron with a monitor Stewart Copeland gave him – and his home life is how he wants it as well.
And what the advance tracks indicated to me, as a fan for roughly 17 years, is that this settling – not on laurels but on optimization – has done him a world of musical good. In the past, BT’s work has been “spiky” – he’d be big into trance or breaks, and then he’d be in minimalist creation for a few years or he’d do a film score. And I might be projecting this from myself, but there was a sense of artistic crop rotation in all of it, that he couldn’t display all facets of himself at the same time so he had to lean hard into each facet whenever he was there.
Now that his fully customized studio takes out the downtime, he’s putting out albums at quite a rate – three last year, for instance (one as the side project All Hail the Silence, which was how the meetup occurred) – and that’s enabling him to unify all his facets and express an arrival at his inner destination rather than show varying sides of the search. It doesn’t reduce the energy of the music – mature and milquetoast aren’t synonyms – but the mixes are more well-rounded, more informed by his whole self than the direction he happens to be heading in. On that point, I think the side project’s foundation of live takes was great for this album’s headspace.
So what I expect to hear in a moment – and again, it’s informed by three tracks before the album and a short trailer – is that this is a unified BT, one who finally has the tools and processes to express all of himself in one project rather than needing to split up.
As with many electronic ventures, you can find varying versions and numbers of remixes depending on where you buy the album. I’m reviewing the core album – 14 tracks, 93 minutes – and not the remixes. 93 minutes is still plenty to go on, of course; BT is nothing if not generous in this area.
We start off with “Game Theory,” with a feel that’s between All Hail the Silence and “Indivisim” off his album titled _. Its sweep expands over the first several minutes; he feels a lot more patient with this track’s development than if he’d made this album in his earlier, spikier days. As an opener, it gives the nice chill-but-poised-to-move feel that “Blue” gave Way Out West’s self-titled debut in 1997.
“Wildfire” surprises with early electric guitar in the mix – when electric guitars are in a BT song, it’s rarely for high chords – and is clearly informed by current trends are while remaining true to BT’s sound design. I’m surprised by how high the kick drum is; this is another self-confident move, I think, to let it be itself instead of using it to establish how EDM you can be on track 2. We do get the bass reinforced around 4:17, but the song feel is still more important (and for someone whose career has been made on genre switchups, the allure of production prowess has often carried more weight than compositional consistency or song feel). It’s not the just-out-the-gates stormer I expected, but it portends the rest of the album.
“Walk into the Water”‘s strength is that where it builds up and draws back interacts interestingly with the vocals. If you’re not familiar with the term “toplining,” it’s a common thing across pop and dance music where someone sings over an existing instrumental track. Once you know it’s there, you can start to identify it – vocals might be confined to certain sections, or the one album vocal track doesn’t give the vocals real space in the mix. Here, across the morphing energy of the track – taking in various house and trance shades of aggression – the vocals are along for the whole ride, and they allow the shifting mix to coalesce around them. That might sound small, but it’s a mark of compositional and collaborative strength that separates it from prefabricated processes that might have turned you off other music unawares. And BT’s trusting that strength instead of feeling like he needs to express something on top in case he can’t later (the way you can overeat at a buffet because it’s a good deal). For how many edges the track’s got, it’s surprising how thought through their combination is. That once again means the places I’m used to hearing the “wow” in his music aren’t there, but they aren’t missed either (apart from making a music reviewer’s job harder – but nobody should care about that).
“1 AM in Paris” is an instrumental track. While it offers no particular insights relative to this review, it is pristine and crisp in the way a sparkling cherry limeade is – big but also full of lightness – and somehow its 7 minutes goes down quickly.
“The Light is Always On” teases some of the spikiness of yore, with sweet strings interrupted by dirty glitchy undergrowth. It returns to the discipline, the taming without being tame, that’s marked the album so far. But at 2:45, it goes into retro mode with a breaks-informed beat for 30 seconds, and it leaves me wondering where it will build up to next. And at 4:45, it comes back harder on the breaks and starts glitching up the vocals. Here’s signature BT, and going the first 35 minutes to get it for 30 seconds is a move that works here. With other artists, it would be a kiss-off: “hey, I could do the stuff you like, but I’m going my own way.” Here, it’s a pop of color: “it was right for this track, so here it is.” I’m sure the disgruntled-inclined – the gruntled-disinclined? – will feel more of the former, and I’d love to have more of it because I’m a sucker for it, but in the context of pieces that are successfully conveying what they mean to convey it feels correct and not condescending.
Then again, BT saved his innovation box tops and UPCs to make “The War.” While I’d recommend “1 AM in Paris” as an intro to BT’s overall sound, I’d recommend “The War” for how he pushes the envelope. Starting as a very modern pop piece (it sounds Taylor Swift-y to me, but I don’t know her records well), it goes into a ravey trap thing for a few measures before returning to pop. But then it hits a drum-and-bass freakout (think the end of Goodie Mob’s “Fight to Win” in terms of compositional impact) and stays there for a surprising length of time before bringing the pop back at double speed, switching back again, and ending with 40 ambient seconds. As with “Walk into the Water,” the vocals are used to glue it all together, which along with mix/mastering prowess make it a coherent song instead of sending off restless vibes.
“Weltanschauung” starts off with a sound collage in the 1984 Depeche Mode vein before hitting a trance-with-light-glitch vibe. Three tracks of glitchiness in, and now I’m wondering if all the smoothness of the first half-hour was a trust fall designed to reward the trust by creatively breaking it – like paying a moving company to transport your mirror and then they get to your house and break it into a mosaic you liked better than the mirror so you can’t be upset with their roguishness. The track settles in to smoothness by the end (except for the actual end!), but the trust has already been stretched. So I have no idea what to expect through the rest of the album (bearing in mind that we’re already 52 minutes down – an entire album for some, but just over half an album in this case).
“I Will Be Yours” starts a sort of side two (the first seven tracks are a continuous mix). It pulls a neat trick of moving from a New Order pop feel to cutting in half for a dubstep feel momentarily – except that he got there by bringing in acoustic guitar and making the drums more acoustic to match, so you’re pulled in opposite directions by the feel and the sound.
“If I Can Love You Right” is a short piece with that tropical, Balearic rhythm you hear a lot of nowadays, but never in BT’s music. I’m not a fan of the piece – I would have liked some more varied lyrics at least, and choosing to dial back on production tricks here doesn’t work as well because of the slowed tempo. But as a juke off the main vibe, its production qualities are still high and of a piece with the rest of the album, and as a short interlude it at least switches genres up in an intriguing way instead of a why-are-you-here way. I like the attempt; I just don’t think it lands. I do think he shows enough to make the second attempt in the genre more robust.
“Never Odd or Even”‘s set of sampled talk at the beginning and watery feel is a nice reminder of Thomas Dolby’s “One of Our Submarines” and the general New Wave reflections on the Cold War via a shared belief in the power of technology. I’m probably reading way too much into it in order so I can sound like a Professional Music Reviewer, but BT’s fondness for that era of music and the power of technology is well-documented, so…maybe? It’s a worthy album track with several pleasing textures.
“Windows” doesn’t do much more than stay in trance-pop mode. It’s good at being that, but I’m not feeling it. That said, it’s once again relatively short; he understood what he was making and was content with it. And BT’s being content in several aspects of his life has been a difference-maker in the album. There’s enough here to like if you’re inclined.
“Red Lights” is the first Christian Burns vocal on the album. I’ve been lukewarm to the vocalists on the album so far, although the vocals have served their purposes very well. But with All Hail the Silence, Christian perfectly understood that sense of ’80s romanticism necessary to thaw the otherwise cold tracks of retro-synth goodness. Maybe that’s what BT needs in his collaborators – someone versed enough in the many roots of his compositions enough to know what each root’s there for. And from Christian’s first notes, that romanticism’s back and super-welcome. (I mean, I’m biased since I’ve enjoyed spending time with him, but hey…) But it’s more than that; they’re both hardened veterans staying young – old souls at the bleeding edge – so there’s a shared weariness they can’t normally express. When Christian sings he that he’s tired of staring at the red lights, there’s a depth of experience in travelling and touring that I know is behind it. It’s that same layer of authenticity that made Everything but the Girl’s jump into electronica, fueled by the smash hit of Todd Terry’s “Missing” remix, feel deep instead of a cash-in. I think that layer will sit very well with Ordinary Times readers, and if you’re not into the style of the album overall, “Red Lights” will still resonate with you.
“No Warning Lights” is a second water-themed lyric, and I can understand how the sea’s calm/storm dichotomy is hitting BT right between the eyes/in the feels at age 49. This was an another of the advance tracks that led me to all the context I gave about BT’s life, and as the penultimate track it’s an accurate bellwether of the overall feel. The vocals mesh well here, and the track feels like one of the best single-song encapsulations of BT’s career.
And we end with “Save Me,” another Christian Burns vocal but with piano/cello backing (in 12/4, a nice switchup – BT’s usually saved his non-4/4 material for non-dance albums, so it’s another example of him merging all his strands). Of BT’s many chilled album-enders, this is one of the most successful. It doesn’t feel the need to stretch out; it doesn’t feel the need to make a concluding statement about the album; it’s just a soft comedown for what’s been a long ride.
It’s been hard over the years to tell people concisely what keeps me caring about BT’s take on dance and other musics so much. It’s hard to keep up with his headspace and his output across all collaborators and projects and styles, and a lot of the personal stuff for me has been our interactions, which is different from the music. But this is the album that I think shows it all off – the intricacy, the innovation, the songcraft, and the optimism – in one digestible go. I’ve used the Grammy-nominated These Hopeful Machines for that slot, but not everyone’s ready for 12-minute pieces that challenge the notion of what a song even is. Where BT’s life has taken him from ages 39 to 49, between These Hopeful Machines and now with The Lost Art of Longing, gives a sense of security (not the Peter Gabriel album of the same name, although why not refer to it?) in his approach to the songs and the album. 25 years in, he’s never had an album that felt like a consolidation of strengths; they keep displaying new tentacles. This is the consolidation album. And while some of that is the choice of production to sound, in one review’s terms, “flat and attenuated,” that’s still a choice that reflects on where BT is now – not flat idea-wise, but even and balanced, like he’s harnessing all of himself at once instead of hulking out in a different color every year.
I’ll be listening to it a lot in the next while, and if you have ever liked a dance or electronic track at all, I definitely recommend checking this out.