Will Archer’s latest project as Wilma Archer finds him exploring a range of influences under a new alias having apparently cast aside his Slime incarnation for the time being. The resulting album represents something of a change in direction and mood, but still highlights his abilities as a songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist.
A Western Circular is a breathtakingly impressive tour of multiple genres and ideas. With elements of classical, jazz, hip hop, soul and the avant garde, a considered and nuanced project unfurls, using whatever means necessary to get what’s inside Archer’s head back out and into something manageable and tangible. Apparently written during a period of reflection on life and death (and with author John Fante’s work providing something of a spiritual guide), it’s interesting that Archer’s voice is not heard at all.
Pure instrumentals begin and end. The track Western Circular is a contemplative atmospheric piece that introduces the album, whilst the blink and you’ll miss it Worst Off West provides a clever call back to the opening tune. Both are mournful and heavy hearted classical pieces with swelling strings, leaving no doubt that there’s sorrow at the centre of the album. Scarecrow, another instrumental, throws some nimble fingered lounge jazz into the mix, a move that throws the album in a completely different direction musically, but retains the after-hours, solitary, soul searching feel.
Whilst Archer’s voice is absent, his role as a creator and architect is very much in evidence. As the album plays, it follows his heart, and the music is a representation of that.
Following on from the meandering jazz of Scarecrow comes Last Sniff, featuring the first of Archer’s collaborators. MF DOOM‘s crafty vocal that weaves its way through a coming together of tightened up jazz and strings, giving the album a much needed sense of focus. Finally everything starts to pull together.
Yet it’s not until The Boon appears that things finally start to make sense. A sultry affair featuring the unmistakably soulful croon of Future Islands‘ Samuel Herring, it’s a wonder that Archer didn’t construct the album around Herring alone. Even though this is a producer’s project, there’s something about The Boon that feels as if it was created in the moment. Laid back and wistful, it drifts along in a dreamlike space, with Herring and the saxophone dancing around each other’s melodies, each taking their inspiration from each other.
Archer’s skill is to make the whole thing sound like a moment unfurling in real time, like a live performance. Herring’s is to breathe soul and life into it, something that he’s more than capable of. He later appears on Decades, where he provides a backing vocal to the wonderful dexterity of Laura Groves (who seems to be channelling The Bee Gees somehow). With a laid back groove, it’s testament to Archer’s vision that he allows the vocalists to bring his songs to life, rather than drawing attention to the production. It’s this steady hand and instinct that marks him out as a producer at the top of his game.
Sudan Archives provides what might be the album’s key moment. Cheater is a stomping ball of confusion, personified by a repetitive skronking brass pulse and simple percussion that could have been deployed by a host of hellish munchkins. Vocally it borders on classic poptones, with a crafty nod towards the likes of Destiny’s Child, but just as something familiar and potentially calming develops, within the space of a few moments, it flips from being a soulful pop highlight to a nightmarish nightclub anxiety attack.
It’s this constant changing of moods (and genres) that personifies A Western Circular. At times it can be a frustrating listen, as it never gets comfortable or settles on a sound. There’s the bones of at least three spin-off albums within its grooves. Yet, this constant shapeshifting means that there’s much to be discovered and loved here. Sounding different every time it’s played is the mark of a great achievement.