Multi-instrumentalist continues his recent rich vein of form, showing his desire for something new burns brighter than ever
With the release of ‘Flicted, Bruce Hornsby completes his Spike Lee trilogy. This, his third album in four years, caps an intensely rewarding period of work where he has been writing songs based on film ‘cues’ originally composed for the director.
The cues have acted as a springboard for the exploration of new styles and techniques, in tandem with a variety of collaborators. The first of the three albums, 2019’s Absolute Zero, saw him working closely with Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon along with Rob Moose and the yMusic ensemble from New York. It allowed deeper explorations into modern classical music within a pop framework. The more challenging Non-Secure Connection travelled further down that road the following year, bringing in Leon Russell and The Shins’ James Mercer.
Stylistically, ‘Flicted (short for ‘afflicted’ rather than ‘conflicted’) falls somewhere between the two, but lyrically many of its songs fall under the influence of the pandemic. The title harks back to Hornsby’s days in a high school basketball team, but just as easily refers to these strange times in which we have found ourselves at the mercy of a contagious disease.
Hornsby continues his role as multi-instrumentalist, with his piano effectively an extension of the voice. The conversational Tag is driven by the brittle lower end of the keyboard, Hornsby telling a story in half spoken, half sung form. Had Enough also works this way, typical of the newer style with elongated meters and cross rhythms, unfolding as natural speech rather than conforming to a strict, four in a bar meter.
The songs are compelling, especially the urgency of the rumbling piano and bass drum underpinning Maybe Now, a quick journey as they push forward under Hornsby’s falsetto. Bucket List operates at a rapid tempo, bass clarinet gurgling as the songwriter complains about the ‘size of the hole in my bucket list’. He is contemplating existence while realising there is still plenty of motivation and energy for looking forward. The scenery of life fair rushes by.
By contrast Days Ahead, featuring Danielle Haim, takes some time out for wry thought and an examination of potential. “There will be days ahead I’m pretty sure, brightening lighter rays in this world”, goes the chorus against warm orchestral scoring. Sidelines also has an optimistic musical approach, the collaboration with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and Blake Mills showing its positivity through bright phrases and mini riffs. By contrast, Is This It, written before the pandemic, looks to have reached the end of the line (“The joke’s on me, no more existential ennui!”). It does so with a typical tongue-in-cheek approach, suggesting the author is far from beaten yet.
Simple Prayer is a string laden collaboration with Z. Berg, Ethan Gruska, Moose and yMusic. Some of the melodies are oblique but make sense with the lyrics, which is also the case on The Hound, where rhythms stretch and tremolo strings flicker. A highlight of the album is a radical reworking of Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business, taking the original material far from its source and into an authentic speak-and-tell Hornsby piece. The glint in the eye running through much of ‘Flicted is here too, an integral part of the singer songwriter’s approach these days.
‘Flicted is one of the more positive responses you will hear to the pandemic, and it continues Bruce Hornsby’s rich vein of form in recent years. It will be very interesting to see where he turns next, for while the singer-songwriter is in his late 60s, the fire of exploration and desire for something new burns brighter than ever. It is giving Hornsby some of the best music of his career.