Music Reviews

Baths Obsidian

(Anticon) Rating - 4/10

When Baths’ debut album came out, I was telling everyone who’d listen that it was hands down the best album of 2010. Cerulean was somewhere between a cutesy, bubbly hip-hop beat tape and an inventive piece of Four Tet-esque lush electronica, made with (and vicariously inspiring) a child-like, wide-eyed wonder at the beauty of the world, achieving that feeling with every single track. It still feels like a warm and beautiful embrace. What we have with Obsidian is Will Wiesenfeld destroying everything he built up with the positivity of Cerulean, refusing to explore that territory again, instead delving deep into his personal demons. It is not out of disappointment with this darker direction that I am dissatisfied with Obsidian, but its misguided execution.

At times it feels almost as if Wiesenfeld has taken his characteristic optimism and wrangled it, with a heavy-handed inelegance, until his music is shaped like his antagonistic Obsidian alter-ego. On opening track Worsening, for instance, there is one wordless, hopeful passage which recurs, but it’s structured amidst squelching, sputtering verses in which Wiesenfeld restrains himself, overly laborious in his attempts at subversion. There’s a poignancy in the idea of Wiesenfeld creating these beautiful structures of sound and then tearing them down – but it could have been done so much more gracefully; he could have squeezed much more out of these ideas. There are some genuinely lovely string arrangements across the record (especially on Ironworks) but their effects are submerged beneath some of the worst lyrics you’ll hear all year.

“I am sweet swine / In Victorian doorways / In tempestuous foreplay” (Ironworks) is one of the most hideous examples of trying-too-hard that the album delivers in spades. The phrase “sixth form poetry” was invented to cover song titles like Miasma Sky. Later: “Lodged in the rectal wall of agony, hell is our only home” (No Past Lives - yikes). Or on Incompatible: “You live in my house and we share a toilet seat”, a rather horrid detail from a record that generally avoids observation in favour of maddeningly myopic internality.

It’s leagues below, say, The Weeknd, where the asshole narrator works because he’s created reflexively and with an exploration of the reasons for and consequences of his behaviour. Obsidian is a shallow and unsatisfying exploration of this dark side. The narrator has no dimensions beyond his pithy, discontinuous musings – one wishes more stories were told, more arcs completed, rather than having to suffer awkward stray phrases like “nurse this erection back to full health” (Incompatible - have I quoted enough lyrics yet? Because I could go on). He comes across as being perversely smug about depravity and depression. But most crucially, it misses any sense of redemption.

Although the lyrics barely improve, the record’s second half is more listenable. When I first heard No Eyes during Baths’ astonishingly good Boiler Room set, consisting mostly of Cerulean tracks, it sounded playfully flippant – “And it is not a matter of / If you mean it / But it is only a matter of / Come and fuck me” – but on Obsidian, it isn’t cheeky, it’s just arrogant; its promisingly buoyant beginnings are overpowered. Phaedra is the album’s finest track, in spite of its gauche allusion to the titular Greek myth, because its sleek, propulsive piano-led drive is one of Obsidian’s most intricate pieces of ear candy, a reminder that an awful lot of work has clearly gone into this album. Let it not be misconceived that this is a lazy record, or even one lacking subtlety – Phaedra is proof that Wiesenfield is an exceptionally gifted and sensitive producer when he wants to be, but too often it is as if he is trying too hard to spoil his own songs.

No Past Lives repeatedly interrupts itself with a plinky piano line, breaking up a flow briefly reminiscent of the parts of Cerulean that lead some listeners to label Baths “chillwave” – but this jumpiness does his style no favours. Earth Death is a dead ringer for Army of Me, but lacking the bite of Björk’s brooding, aggressive single. And then, the album ends on a left turn: Inter is a curiously calm ending, a rather wonderful (if ill-fitting) coda of Wiesenfeld’s looped vocal harmonies, strings, and a lilting bassline. It is like waking from a bad dream.

In every clip of Will Wiesenfeld I’ve ever seen he’s been the absolute picture of ebullience, and that aspect of his personality was captured so perfectly with Cerulean. Baths himself seems to have given Obsidian its fitting epitaph on Incompatible: “I was never poetic / And I was never kind”. But he is better than this – in no way is my faith in Baths as a producer dented, I’m just thoroughly unconvinced by Baths as lyricist and misanthrope.