Proggy excursions and Eno-esque lyrics characterise this beguiling labour of love from the production polymath
Arctic Monkeys, Depeche Mode, Florence And The Machine, and as half of Simian Mobile Disco – there isn’t much that unites these acts apart from the artistic contributions of James Ellis Ford. And thus, with Simian Mobile Disco on health-enforced hiatus, the news of his debut solo album begs questions. What it would sound like, what genre would it even be in? The answer has arrived, as The Hum cycles through proggy arrangements, intricate jazzy moments, sections of abstract electronica and more downtempo material which evokes the latter half of Before And After Science.
The Hum’s sound palette is distinctly analogue, happy to let grooves rely on musicianship rather than quantisation and embrace some calculated unpredictability. Tape Loop #7 incorporates a soundbed of disembodied marimba notes, coalescing into a gentle major tonality before being disrupted by the free-flowing guitar performance halfway through. This isn’t a representation of what is to come, and a few minutes later the meandering chords and melodious woodwind lines of Pillow Village kick in so seamlessly that it makes the first song feel like a five-minute intro.
Lyrics drift in and out at will, delivered in a contemplative baritone that allows eccentricity to shine through (“Up on the mountain where the air is getting thin / out in the garden like a leaf blown on the wind / behind the curtain waiting for the big reveal / there you may find me dancing to a squeaky wheel”). Perhaps the record’s best vocal performance comes on Golden Hour, where close harmonies guide the listener through its pleasant yet knotty sequence, and the poignant sentiment of Closing Time is helped in no small measure by Ford’s melancholy delivery.
At some particularly lush points in the album’s sound design, it becomes quite easy to believe that this is the same James Ford who produced the Arctic Monkeys’ last two records. The key differences here, however, are that the vocals fit snugly into these musical pockets and the tone is less indulgent. If there are a few niggles – the unappealing mix of elements on Emptiness, to name one – they are washed away by the charm of the whole thing, and the nifty runtime doesn’t leave any room for out-and-out filler.
The Hum is beguiling, a labour of love from an artist who could have made whatever he set his mind to, and it seems destined to be one of 2023’s hidden gems.