It’s been over 20 years since the release of Nitin Sawhney’s debut Spirit Dance, and he’s showing no signs of fatigue on his 10th album. An undisputed polymath, he has managed a career that has taken in acting in Goodness Gracious Me to conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. His equally diverse genre defying multicultural approach to music takes a darker turn on Dystopian Dream.
All the familiar elements are here. Anyone who has followed Sawhney’s work will be well aquatinted with constant shifts and blends of Western and Asian musical tropes. The album weaves and winds its way around the moody groove and bluesy vocals of Days R Gone to intermediary ambient pieces like Timetrap: just as the trip-hop pulse of Scape sits beside the India-inflected rhythm and vocals of Tere Khyal. This synthesis of genres and cultures has been the hallmark of Sawhney’s recordings and, quite rightly, they have consolidated his reputation as one of Britain’s finest music talents.
For the main part these shifts maintain a cohesive atmosphere throughout the record, but occasionally the tracks don’t segue quite as smoothly as they might. The riff heavy chorus of When I’m Gone has a jarring effect which pulls you out of the narrative of the record and is, quite frankly, mildly hammy.
It’s the sparser pieces that don’t push too hard that are often most effective. Natacha Atlas gives a beautifully understated yet powerful performance over skittish beats and spare guitar on Can’t Breathe with maximum impact. Another highlight is Redshift, featuring vocals from newcomer J’Danna. Her deliciously raspy, soulful vocals dance on a muffled deep resounding drum beat to create a subtly infectious number. It has the album’s best hook and is a fine example of Sawhney’s collaborative talent.
In addition to the record’s mixed musical styles, as the title suggests, lyrically it’s full of contradictions. Oxymoronic lines fable “dystopian bliss” and suggest “it’s a dark day in heaven”. It adds to the overall effect of dark and light that permeates the record and creates its core tension. That tension is both personal and political this time around; while his previous work has engaged chiefly with political and cultural issues, Sawhney has admitted this is a more personal album. Recorded in the shadow of his father’s death, he has described how the making of Dystopian Dream has been a cathartic process.
Despite his more personal approach, he is far from disengaged with current political issues that have informed much of his output to date. He recently explained: “I do feel a bit darker about things now, watching what’s going on with governments, politics. It’s like ‘Jesus Christ – are we going to constantly keep going through the same cyclical shifts’.” Dystopian Dream is yet another shift in Sawhney’s cycle of albums. He restlessly explores musical directions with an openness that is unique – sometimes it’s successful, other times less so.
In an era when genre lines are increasingly eroded, Sawhney’s multicultural fusions no longer seem as inspired as they once did. The problem with being a successful trailblazer is that eventually those innovations are appropriated by a younger generation, often to more populist means. But Sawhney is way past the point of having to prove himself, and interestingly the most rewarding parts of this album tend to be those that sound closer to his usual output. The tracks that feel most relaxed and natural really showcase his talent as a boundary-crossing adventurer. For those moments alone Dystopian Dream is worth the time of both long-time fans of Sawhney and new listeners alike.