Beyond Skin, Nitin Sawhney‘s last album, firmly established him as a commercial success as well as one of the most critically acclaimed artists around. The praise, including a Mercury nomination, was not for nothing, as his live set shows. He is just possibly the single most talented all-round musician and producer to emerge from Britain for years. Prophesy, the follow-up record for new label V2, comes complete with a burden of expectation – but of course it is well up to meeting it.
What else could one expect from this man anyway, considering his recent worldwide recording jaunt that took in Greece, the USA, South Africa and Australia, to name just a few of his stopping points? Much has been made of the manner in which Prophesy was recorded; but what is truly odd is that he has returned his travelling notes to his music with such little effect. A two part offering called Street Guru has us listening to a zonked-out Yankie surfer type, babbling hyperbole about why technology and time are the twin ills of all the world and people are losing their lives to them.
But did Sawhney have to go to the USA to find some random opinionated weirdo? Surely London could supply plenty of these? And what about Developing, a song which features excruciating South African school singing? In its own context it might be very pleasant, but within this framework, forming a track on a London-based recording artist’s latest album, it leaves a strange ringing in the ears.
Best to get the minor criticisms over and done with anyway, for the rest of the album is sublime. It is not anything like as over-produced as Beyond Skin and hits the spot exactly for the most part, with an array of guest vocalists who seem to vary between live shows and studio recordings. Their distinct styles help to individualise each track; and without them we would have a jazz-world fusion album of wonderful music but far less character than the result that we hear.
The Preacher comes over like Tom Jones, of all people, while Walk Away reminds of Eighth Wonder, the short-lived Pet Shop Boys side project featuring Patsy Kensit, or even Saint Etienne. Breathing Light, aside from featuring Nelson Mandela’s “we are free to be free” sample, offers wonderfully lush piano across some ripped-up breakbeats.
Moonrise is offered to us with Portuguese lyrics and flamenco-style guitar, suffused with a Björk-esque synth strings arrangement, while the title track, last on the album, is an unforgettable delight which begins slow and spiritual and raises the tempo to a distinctly bohemian level which is quite intoxicating. Throughout all of this, Sawhney is not only producing but playing acoustic guitar (lead) with aplomb and making his synths and rhythm gadgets work overtime.
It is however not an album to listen to just once, especially if you are new to the “Brasian” (British Asian) feel of high-tech production, traditional Indian rhythm and world influences in melody. The album, like Talvin Singh‘s Ha!, rewards the patient listener by getting better each time. It is for this reason that we must consider Prophesy as not only an admirable follow-up to Beyond Skin but surely one of this year’s best albums.