There is a real sense of musical schizophrenia happening on Compass, Jamie Lidell’s wildly idiosyncratic new record. Lidell has proven to be quite adept at fluidly transforming his sound from the edgy electronica of his DJ days to the smoothed out neo-soul of his recent records, but this effort is a radical sonic curveball, even by his continually progressive standards. There are echoes from every corner of the record store on Compass, translating to songs that will easily resonate with music fans of all stripes, while also confounding the same listener with overdone styles they continually try to escape from.
The record is unequivocally a mixed bag of nuts, with Lidell swinging untethered from one genre to the next, gleefully bouncing from experimental, glitchy pop to Prince-like soul, before settling into a sexed-up, champagne and candles R&B romp, all over the course of just three songs. Most of it works, and damn near all of it is interesting, but it makes for an incredibly uneven listen that never settles down enough to make a lasting impression. It sounds instead like a friend is fitfully changing channels on the radio while you try and drive straight through the night; it keeps you awake, and you end up making it home, but in the end you’re so disoriented that you’re not quite sure how you got there.
Part of the disjointed temperament is a direct result of the accelerated recording sessions, with Lidell apparently composing these songs in an inspired month-long burst. The disparate array of guest stars involved also adds to the pastiche nature of the album’s sound, with Feist, Nikka Costa, Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, Wilco’s Pat Sansone, and former Ray Charles/Marvin Gaye drummer James Gadson amongst those contributing various parts to the capricious whole. But it’s Beck Hanson’s participation that colours this record most vividly, with his slapdash Record Club recordings (which Lidell has routinely taken part in) clearly influencing the chaotic mood and spirit of Compass, as well as his inventive production, distorted synths and ghostly vocals that are threaded seamlessly throughout the songs.
But it’s ultimately Lidell’s expressive, velvety voice that is most clearly heard on the record, and it seems he’s taking more chances with his vocals on this effort, now that he’s fully convinced all of us that he can really sing. He’s hidden behind a wall of fuzzy distortion on opener ‘Completely Exposed,’ while his voice is twisted around the futuristic blues stomp of ‘Your Sweet Boom.’ It’s isn’t until the Michael McDonald-sounding ballad ‘She Needs Me’ before Lidell fully unleashes his vocals without masking them within a flood of reverb. Unfortunately, this is one of the weaker tracks on the album, offering nothing new to a genre that has been bereft of original ideas for years. Thankfully things pick back up on the goofy come-on ‘I Wanna Be Your Telephone,’ with a funk that is so unmistakably influenced by Prince that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Lidell recorded it in Minneapolis. It’s a playful homage, and it potently gets the record back on track. And, other than the ‘Rock The Boat’ aping misstep ‘Enough’s Enough’ (which I hope garners Hues Corporation some much deserved royalties), Lidell only builds on that momentum, with the nasty modern soul crush of ‘The Ring’ and the hyperactive drive of the Gnarls Barkley-echoing ‘You Are Waking’ forming a formidable centerpiece to the album.
‘I Can Love Again’ and ‘It’s A Kiss’ both plod on harmlessly before the title track again lights the fuse, with Lidell’s heartfelt, revealing lyrics guiding the deeply affecting song to lofty heights. The album ends dynamically, with Beck’s fingerprints all over both the impassioned thrust of ‘Coma Chameleon’ and the simmering spookiness of ‘Big Drift,’ which you’ll swear is being sung by Chris Cornell before Timbaland ruined him. ‘You See My Light’ closes the record out serenely, with Lidell singing plaintively over a misshapen piano line. It’s a reassuringly honest plea from a man who isn’t entirely visible throughout the album, often concealed behind deviant beats and appropriated styles. But when his true voice and unique style ultimately does shines through, these songs truly soar, revealing a singular artist who pulses with modernity and a boundless imagination.