Ryan Hemsworth has mastered the social web. You can see it in his tweets, which knowingly combine the sad teenager aesthetic with that of the semi-ironic, in-crowd broducer. You can see it in his Secret Songs record club, through which he’s cultivated a community of bedroom producers in his likeness and given them access to a large audience. And you can see it on the guest list for his new album, Alone for the First Time, which, despite its name, features contributions from popular Soundcloud artists and Secret Songs amateurs alike. But even if it’s not literal, the title does justice to the major artistic step that this album represents. For better and for worse, this is the Halifax producer’s boldest aesthetic statement to date, and taking that kind of risk must feel something like striking out on your own for the first time.
Hemsworth started his career playing two distinct roles. He produced songs for minor, buzzing Southern rappers riding the cloud-rap wave and remixed the pop songs of the moment, tricking them out with candy-colored synths and creaky drum machines. He was already about as collaborative as it’s possible to be: most of his work either featured someone else rapping or was a rework of a song that had been created by someone else entirely. But even his original tracks felt like the work of a producer who wasn’t yet sure what kind of music he wanted to make, someone who was following cues from other artists. The Last Words EP from 2012 was catchy but scattered, and last year’s Guilt Trips, as refined as it was, showed a reluctance to commit to any one style. (The exception to these projects was last year’s Still Awake EP, the most direct precursor to Alone for the First Time.)
Hemsworth was one of the early, post-Girl Talk producers who reveled in the dissolution of genre, and he dabbled in bedroom electronic, candied R&B and Southern hip-hop without pledging allegiance to any of them. It was only when he fully embraced a fourth influence, the 8-bit soundtracks to handheld video games of the ’80s and ’90s, that he began to focus on refining a specific sound, one that combined his pop instincts with the miniaturized melodies of that format.
He’s been drilling down towards the essence of that sound for more than a year now. And the core he’s reached on the new album reveals a singer-songwriter bedroom pop by way of Final Fantasy. It’s unmistakably a winter album, and would be recognizable as such even were its first single not titled “Snow in Newark”; the album fairly bleeds nostalgia and comfort—listening to it feels like being swaddled with blankets and pillows. And for the first time it features Hemsworth doing a good amount of singing, a jarring development for fans who originally came to him for his remixes or production.
Hemsworth has made sport out of feeling vulnerable—his twitter is replete with references to him needing to snuggle—and his lyrics are generally in that mold. When they’re simple, as on “Walk Me Home”, they can feel tender and lovely. The song’s refrain of “Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, there’s no room for me left in your heart,” is genuinely heartbreaking, syncing nicely with an upswing of strings and what sounds like a live version of the drum machines he favors. But occasionally, his songs can feel like transmissions of his twitter feed that have been scrubbed of all humor or irony. “Snow in Newark” is the best example of this phenomenon: the first verse is one of the album’s wordiest, but Hemsworth doesn’t use it to communicate details and the song ends up sounding both vague and precious, reminiscent of a lesser Jack Johnson track.
Songs like these will garner Hemsworth new fans, but it’s jarring to hear someone with such a refined sense of structure still struggling with songwriting. It can be a relief then to reach a track on which a truly talented vocalist makes up for Hemsworth’s lyrical shortcomings. “Surrounded”, which features the voice of the wonderful Angelino songstress Kotomi, is one of the most powerful tracks on the album, and it feels like a natural extension of the R&B remixes that Hemsworth came up on. The singer’s voice breathes life into the lyrics like a good actor into a bad role—the preciousness of the words is swallowed by the power of her emotion and the frantic production that surrounds her voice echoes the track’s message.
Tracks like “Surrounded” hint that the problem with Hemsworth’s songs is not necessarily the lyrics but rather his lack of confidence when it comes to doing those simple words justice. But the contrast between the amateurism of his songs is all the more jarring because he’s become such a sure-handed producer. Instrumental tracks like “Blemish” and “Hurt Me” are quintessential Hemsworth productions, springy, bubbly tracks that sound like they were produced for a Pallet Town after party. There’s an undercurrent of melancholy to each that’s balanced nicely by the chirpy synths and springy drums that have long been the producer’s forte.
You have to hand it to Hemsworth for refusing to make the same song over and over again. He’s learning from the artists he’s meeting online, going farther afield than ever before (the album features artists from all over the globe), and growing more comfortable in his role as someone who can create pop, not merely tweak existing songs. Alone for the First Time is the furthest he’s pushed himself, and the growing pains on the album can be chalked up to the strain of trying new things, a kind of adolescent awkwardness that shows signs of maturing into something sophisticated and unique.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1sfovF1