Hymnal is the fourth album from Benoît Pioulard (the pseudonym used by American musician Thomas Meluch). The name of the album was inspired by the various social, cultural and visual contexts of religion and specifically how they can relate to and impact positively upon the life of the individual.
It is an unusually elevated starting point and it manifests itself very discreetly over the album’s 12 tracks. Rather than making any overt statements, Pioulard prefers instead to make the subtlest of allusions, trying to capture the sense of devotion and belonging found in religion and translate it into something tangible and sonic. In this sense, his use of religion as inspiration is quite far removed from the way someone like Sufjan Stevens employs it.
The three albums that preceded it (Précis, Temper and Lasted – also all released on Kranky) were consistent, positively-received affairs but they never really threatened to dislodge him from his position on the musical outskirts. It’s unlikely that Hymnal will be any different but it does have the feel of a breakthrough, career-best record in many ways. It shows him to be refining his art, making small improvements along the way.
The blueprint for Hymnal is the same as his other albums in that it features vocal-based tracks lined up alongside short, ambient excursions and it’s a combination that still works extremely well for him. It’s an album to slowly lose oneself in – equally in both the instrumentals and song-based tracks. His background in field recordings helps in terms of the depth of sound, while it also features string arrangements and guitar playing from Kranky labelmates Felix and Kyle Bobby Dunn respectively.
The pleasingly cloudy, obfuscated production does mean that the melodies need a little unearthing from the wider sound, not entirely dissimilar, say, to someone like Panda Bear (but without the sense of excess and overloading that can occasionally hinder Panda Bear albums). However, once heard repeatedly the melodies are gradually extricated and have an almost diaphanous quality to them. Hawkeye has a gauzy, beautiful imprecision to it, hinting at what Grizzly Bear may sound like if they lost some of the occasional restrictive over-complications. Reliquary meanwhile has a similarly shrouded and dusty crackle (and also touches lyrically upon concepts like consecration and transfiguration – the most religiously explicit things get here). The cyclical, rolling guitars of Excave and submerged melodic beauty of Margin follow before eventually the highpoint of the album is reached in the fluttery, bucolic psychedelic pop of Litiya. It reinforces the strangely nostalgic, sepia-tinted quality that infiltrates many of the vocal tracks.
Yet, these are interspersed with orbiting, meditative pieces like Gospel and Censer which recall the work of dark ambient pioneer Tim Hecker, albeit in a more benign form, with any trace of excessive abrasion removed. Knell provides the most explicit musical religious reference with the incorporation of the sound of church bells that are delicately sewn into the fabric of the track.
The overwhelming strength of Hymnal is the way in which the tracks vary and alternate, casting the album as one long musical reverie; a kind of melodically textured dreamscape. On Hymnal, Benoît Pioulard has succeeded in creating something rich and rewarding. It’s an album that deserves to be heard by a wider audience.