Restraint has been the watchword for composer/producer Ryan Lott’s output as Son Lux so far. His 2008 debut At War With Walls And Mazes, 2011′s follow-up We Are Rising, and to some extent last year’s s/s/s project with Serengeti and Sufjan Stevens, were knotty affairs, with Lott’s now-trademark blend of classical instrumentation and electronic textures building towards soundscapes at once lush and elegantly reined in.
His music is far from minimalist; at any given moment you might encounter synthetic basslines splashing against orchestral flourishes, full-throated choirs trading turns with Lott’s own quavering vocals, or twinkling piano sections underpinned by the kind of pistol-whip beats that more frequently populate hip hop’s low end. But despite the sheer density of the songs, Son Lux has made a virtue, much like close contemporaries These New Puritans and James Blake, of distilling a bewildering array of influences and giving them grace in a new form that prioritises balance, pacing and, perhaps above all, restraint.
Safe to say, restraint is no longer the watchword for Son Lux. In fact, new album Lanterns dumps restraint at the side of the road and leaves it coughing in the dust. On paper, the set-up is recognisable: electronics still jostle against an eclectic orchestra, and twisty-turny sonic experimentation is still the order of the day. This time, though, Lott’s quiet stream of consciousness has gathered pace and burst its banks, unleashing a torrent of escapist fantasy.
Early leak “Lost It To Trying” is probably the purest expression Son Lux’s brassy new approach, four and a half minutes of unshackled melodrama that whips up its own electrical storm, with arena-sized drums and lung-vibrating bass saxophone serving as the thunder while keening vocal samples, chanted choruses and assorted panicking instruments dip and dive in the gale. It’s a glorious squall, its potency matched only by the intelligence and instrumental discipline that makes the whole thing fly. The driving beat and jerking strings on “No Crimes” make a similarly pleasing racket, crackling with the same romantic heat that runs through Arcade Fire’s Funeral.
Of course, the album isn’t relentless. Few of the other tracks on the album push as hard on the accelerator as the aforementioned firecrackers, and there are regular reminders of Son Lux’s more meditative back catalogue. But even the slower numbers hum with a heart-on-sleeve emotional clarity that sets them apart from what’s come before. Take “Enough Of Our Machines”, which opens with a wistful section of organic piano and violin as Lott tremulously rejects the digital life, only for an enormous, industrial electro beat to defiantly kick in halfway through. Or the statuesque R&B of “Easy”, its glassy quality undercut somewhat by the theremin having a panic attack in the background and the eerie refrain: “Burn all your things/To make the fight to forget/Easy”.
Rejecting reality and searching for something new is Lanterns’ recurring dream, and Lott’s cyclical lyrics are fluent in the language of escape. At various points wasting worlds are left behind, alternate worlds are discovered, brand new histories are unearthed and resurrection is found in the flames. The words themselves aren’t special, weighted down as they are with a sense of portent that might be a bit ripe for some, but the expressiveness of the music carries them further in your imagination than they have any right to go, especially on the spacey, childlike melodies of “Plan The Escape” and “Lanterns Lit”, the album’s closing tracks. With his background as a composer for dance choreography, it’s no surprise that Lott excels at painting pictures with musical movement. In giving his compositions a little more leeway to spin and pirouette with maximum emotional force, Son Lux has made his best album to date and proven the wisdom of waving goodbye to restraint once in a while.