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Wolfgang Tillmans proves to be an assertive and masterful force on Build From Here

"Build From Here"

Release date: 26 April 2024
Wolfgang Tillmans Build from here album cover
26 April 2024, 10:30 Written by Ray Honeybourne

Known principally as a photographer, most notably for his 1990s images of clubbing culture and the gay scene – as well as the cover of Frank Ocean's BlondeWolfgang Tillmans recorded his first album, Moon in Earthlight, in 2021.

A remarkable work, it was based on a disparate collection of sounds, such as those of raindrops and of the area close to a traffic light in a busy Nairobi street, that were then incorporated into a sequence of electronic compositions. A record of hard-to-classify beauty, with a dance-techno emphasis, yet going beyond any specific genre criteria, it also had something of the ethereal suggested by the astronomical imagery of the title.

Build From Here, the new record from the Berlin-based artist, is a little more assertive, stressing rhythmically and verbally the notion of constructing something positive, even out of challenging situations, as he encourages us, “Just be strong.” Yet, at times, the forcefulness of the dance beat is deliberately softened through the noticeable lack of drums on ambiguous tracks like “Regratitude”, to the extent that the words seems less exhortative, and more a plaintive, slightly despairing imperative from an artist who campaigned so vigorously against the empty promises of the Brexit mongers, and as if an instruction to build from here represents a recognition of a damagingly compromised time and place where construction often means merely repair, the ladder on its side on the album cover suggesting imminent remedial work rather than optimistic architectural ascent.

A nervous echo and uncertain questioning in opener “Where Does the Tune Hide?”, the words stretched out in an almost-querulous tone, is followed by fast-paced and optimistic dance-friendly rhythms of tracks such as “Cab Ride”, and the gloriously exuberant “We Are Not Going Back” whose forceful, “No turning back the clocks”, is a determined statement of intent recognising that we cannot change what has been allowed to happen, but that very fact drives us and the song with defiant propulsion.

Tillmans’ admiration of the Pet Shop Boys’ joyous songs is clear in “Morning Light”, another gorgeous forward-facing track emphasising the need to emerge from the dark with a clear decisiveness. Its energetic drive is of a piece with the final track on Side One, “French Lesson”, with its beautiful mélange of synth effects and driving basslines. Yet between these two is the short, enigmatic “ADA403”, a twenty-first century update of medieval sacred music sonics, keeping us aware that Tillmans’ range is far-reaching

His old group, Fragile, features on “Grüne Linean”, with a sinister rhythm recalling Joy Division crossed with Kraftwerk. It’s a hugely-impressive song that builds menacingly towards a defiant “for when I’m weak, I’m strong”. The title track then expresses a vulnerability and, at the same time, a sense of genuine hope, in a beautiful and tremulous vocal line, “I want to try it all, taste it all. Will you be here?”

It’s the way Tillmans integrates so effectively many stylistic features, without the album ever losing a sense of direction, that is particularly impressive. In less-assured hands, the record could have been a derivative collage of effects. Yet what he manages here is a set of tracks of compelling interest, always engaging and often gloriously surprising, such that one does appreciate its craftsmanship and its genuine catchiness more and more with subsequent plays. It’s a very considerable achievement, and hugely rewarding, intricately constructed, wary and effusive by turns, made from many different components but most definitely so much more than the sum of its parts.

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