Baths - Obsidian

7/10

When Baths debut Cerulean emerged in 2010, Will Wiesenfeld was bracketed with L.A beat scene artists like Flying Lotus and Nosaj Thing, but he always had a spark of something different about him. His sound mixed deep saturated beats with wistful samples and falsetto vocals that imbued a sadness to the record, one which seemed more human and much less exhausting to listen to than those peers. This second album only serves to highlight the superficiality of those previous associations, as Obsidian is a casually accessible but black-hearted collection which he has called his “weird version of a pop record”.

The songs here are definitely more immediate than on Cerulean but they’re no less intricately constructed, with repeat listens teasing out several layers of little auditory oddities. The hooks on ‘Miasma Sky’ mask a meandering almost jazz like structure and distract from the wealth of ambient details that percolate throughout. ‘Ironworks’ is a gorgeous number on which Wiesenfeld croons a brewing storm over lilting piano keys and sepia strings whilst softly strewn beats jostle for position underneath. On tracks like this one and ‘No Past Lives’ his classical training really becomes apparent by its juxtaposition with more thoroughly modernist production. The opening four tracks of Obsidian are quite unstoppable though, striking a perfect middle ground of such technical vivification and a tone of heart-on-sleeve introspection.

There is a definite mid-point lull though as the sex-obsessed but oddly sexless pairing of ‘Incompatible’ and ‘No Eyes’ serve up some disconcertingly trite lyrics with little to compensate musically, other than the brilliantly noisy coda that drowns the latter track in more palpable aggression. It’s a surprisingly isolated burst of volume as well (matched only be the NIN like stomp of ‘Earth Death’) considering that much of the album was written following a debilitating bacterial infection which rendered Wiesenfeld unable to do much of anything for several months, and its dense claustrophobic atmosphere feels like an expulsion of pent-up negativity.

It is a dark cloud of an album for sure, as a glance at the song titles suggest, and his moribund lyrics throughout are occupied with death and decay often to a point of overkill. Instrumental closing track ‘Inter’ lifts that cloud though with a haunting romance, an atmosphere which feels eerily similar to Donnie and Joe Emerson’s indie-movie favourite ‘Baby’. It channels a quiet loneliness which is detached from the buzzing anxiety of the rest of the album, a snapshot of something simpler and optimistic.

Twisted, beautiful and introspectively bleak, Obsidian has a lot of qualities which I expect will keep me coming back to it, but it feels lacking as well. Its emotions are strangely impenetrable, because for all it sounds like an emotional record on surface the more you sink into it the more it seems only like the outline of one. His falsetto wavers and his wordless harmonies cast shapeless rain clouds while noises bubble and burst in the vicinity but it’s difficult to feel anything specific toward most of the songs beyond a superficial level.

It’s perhaps ironically this which makes it a “weird pop record”, its surface. There’s no denying the technical ability and songcraft is there, and unpicking the layers is the most enjoyable part of listening, but it’s emotional tugging ultimately strikes as hollow, not through insincerity but in being too obfuscated or overbearing for me to really love these songs. Wiesenfeld’s lyrical talents are yet to routinely manifest the same subtlety as his composition, but there is enough here to suggest that he is definitely capable of closing the gap.