There’s always some danger in claiming an album as your “most natural sounding”. Tricky did that with Vulnerable, calling it his “most honest and open record,” and it isn’t remembered as a highlight of his career.
Washington, DC based musician Martyn falls into this trap on his third full-length release in the past five years, The Air Between Words. Despite a back-to-basics approach that creates a fond atmosphere, there is little of style or substance to be found, and that makes The Air Between Words a tiresome listen, sporting few of his previous excitements.
Perhaps Martyn listened to a lot of Trax Records in his youth, because there is certainly a heavy house music feel here – not the kind of house that’s been co-opted by EDM in recent years, but ’90s house, when funk and Aphex Twin electronica were coalescing. Forgiveness Step 2 is an example where this mix is embodied wonderfully, even featuring an ambient interlude mid-track that brings up the best of the Artificial Intelligence series with a bit of M-Theory thrown about. Empty Mind tries this approach too, but the DJ Shadow-esque vocal samples are a far cry from Endtroducing….. and the Musicology beats are stale. There’s an understated glare of static and warped strings, which are extremely interesting and would serve Martyn well if he focused more on peppering his music with more of these clicks and cuts.
The album’s 52-minute running time is almost entirely four-on-the-floor dance beats for the cool-down room of a ’90s IDM rave. This isn’t a bad thing– some of FaltyDL’s better tracks are five-to-seven minute downtempo chillbeat – but the lack of texture with the exception of steady rhythmic beats adds little to interest the mind. There’s cinema, but not much magic; Two Leads And A Computer features some beautiful bass distortion through a mix of brief keyboard flashes, but the six-and-a-half minute length leads things to get old fast. Artists such as Actress used length to their advantage, gently adding and subtracting elements to keep the ears engaged without losing focus. Martyn doesn’t do that: he has his general theme, but by the 10th time the same jazz piano chord plays on Drones, you’ll be wishing for a bit more freak out.
Glassbeadgames, a collaboration with Four Tet, features some of Kieran Hebden’s eccentricity and has some evolving ideas, but feels hampered by a need to play rehashed breaks halfway through the song. The beatless keyboard break is a cliché, but Martyn and Hebden play as if it’s a brand new idea. And with the aforementioned lack of real climax, it’s a misguided attempt. The track is saved by a strong final one-third, where pitch-shifted voices call back to earlier themes in the song and a skeletal arrangement of xylophone and strings bring to a steady close. Those two minutes make up the strongest point of the entire album, and it demands replays. It’s a fantastic section. It does not make up for the lackluster other 50 minutes, though; but focusing on sections like these will ameliorate much of the discussed flaws.
Like That has some of the DJ Rashad hyperactivity and repetitive vocals samples. Matthewdavid and St Vincent absolutely nailed sexuality in this year’s releases, but hearing the nigh-orgasmic repeat of “like that / just like that” and moans over and over again are more disturbing than they are a turn-on. Love Of Pleasure, featuring Inga Copeland of Hype Williams, explores love in a lyrically evocative manner with some genuinely interesting sounds, despite the sonic lapses that plague the rest of the album; surely, The Air Between Words’ strengths lie in its collaborations.
Martyn has an incredible musical heritage and series of works in his past, and it’s a shame that The Air Between Words simply is not as interesting nor as rewarding. Martyn stated that “every album signifies a period in your life,” so it would be a mistake to consider this one his most natural sounding when other works have more fully shown his prowess as a producer.