It’s been nearly a decade since Patrick Watson, the Canadian quartet led by the man of the same name, started beguiling anyone who crossed their path. To date, they have released four well-received albums, with their 2012 record Adventures In Your Own Backyard being their most confident and assured release to date. Yet they remain something of a hidden treasure, with mainstream success having continually eluded them. Love Songs For Robots, the long-awaited follow-up, is a big step into the unknown for them and, despite glimmers of brilliance, is one that will ultimately leave listeners feeling a little frustrated.
The eponymous lead singer has been been quoted as describing the LP as a “science fiction R&B meets Vangelis erotica with a zest of folk kind of record”. It’s a bold statement, but the reality is less exciting. The songwriting cocktail of humans and technology is more common than ever before; Patrick Watson certainly isn’t the first person to explore this subject, as anyone who’s listened to Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn will know. Whilst it’s interesting to hear a different take, there are no revelations here to be found.
On a musical level at least, this album aims higher than their previous work. Their back catalogue to date has been underpinned by careful construction, but on this occasion they seem to be taking their foot off the pedal a little. They’ve expanded their sonic palette and have decided to aim towards the stars. Atmosphere and mood is king here. An album full of ideas is the result, even if that comes at the cost of melodies and hooks. On the closing Places You Will Go, his falsettos are stronger than ever, but they’re also unjustly buried by layers of sound that have no place there. Know That You Know and Turn Into The Noise are overbloated, yet when tracks of a more concise nature emerge, such as In Circles and Alone In This World, they disappear in a flash.
Trying to find nuggets of gold is a challenge, but they are scattered throughout these 10 songs. Good Morning Mr Wolf veers a little more successfully towards the bombastic side – airy and filled with lots of tension. The aching guitar lines, that sound more like a wailing ondes Martenot, are dramatic and startling. Hearts is a mess, going from quiet to thumping to dizzying without any warning, but you’d be hard pressed to say that it isn’t thrilling. Surely the best song overall is Grace, a calm and collected tune that just about stops itself from being too much of a total ’70s AOR pastiche.
Love Songs For Robots is not quite the sci-fi epic that it strives to be. The erratic nature of the arrangements is too disorientating, although sometimes its ambition leads to stellar results or, at the very least, huge promise. That said, it speaks volumes when the most successful tunes are the ones that don’t sound noodly and tortured. Whilst it’s a brave attempt to explore new lands outside their comfort zone, it’s one that isn’t quite as rewarding and rich as Patrick Watson would have hoped.