Music Reviews
Soft Fall

Sun Airway Soft Fall

(Dead Oceans) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

Real beauty lives beyond our senses. It may be the most abstract of all ideas, a non-tangible force that triggers a pleasurable response in its purest form. Unattainable as it may be, it never discourages those who seek it with a passion. Jon Barthmus cultivates all these varieties into a blissful haven of sounds – he grabs from sources that range from the tonalist canvases of James McNeil Whistler to the ordinary frankness of David Foster Wallace, artists whose aesthetic magnificence is coupled with an underlying sense of isolation. Yet what drives the music of Sun Airway isn’t the very nature of art itself. All these influences share the common ground of absolute excellence, of fulfilling a vision that broke through in a major way.

All this may suggest that Barthmus is designing for perfection. That he’s painstakingly sampling disparate sounds and processing them through supple filters and textures. As with any producer who wants to maximize his sonic scope, the impression it depicts is that he’s tailored to achieve grandiosity. Making a record that sounds epic has become the new normal in electronic circles, and the debate has evolved from past polarizing discussions of creating “intelligent” dance music. Nothing is off-limits anymore and thankfully so. But what still differentiates Barthmus from his contemporaries (Baths, Washed Out) is his genuine disinterest of keeping it all to himself, and that there’s still value in assembling a full-bodied live experience instead of keeping it locked in a software suite. 

If Barthmus had the chance, he’d expand his electronic recordings into a grand symphonic whole. Sun Airway has always been informed by classical composition, chiefly in the sprightly major-key melodicism that fully vested his aptly titled debut release, Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier. Soft Fall unfurls into a delicate soundscape right from the get go in Activity 1, a one minute instrumental enveloped in strings that masterfully interpolates many of the soundbytes heard throughout the record as a means of setting a precedent for what’s yet to come. It fluidly segues into Close, an effervescent, larger than life pop song engraved with a romantic air. Close also introduces the first of many inspired verses in the album, which can be easy to miss over a production that pushes them in the background: so you slowly split your two lips/and the words spill out like ribbon, he exclaims, as it goes into a mounting chorus overlaid by a wavelike bass line.

Sun Airway will pull your emotions in every possible direction, like the almost danceable Wild Palms, in which a luminescent synth loop bounces over a mosaic coating of clear, iridescent textures atop its droning organ pulse. This is the sound of towering churches and cathedrals, of elevating oneself into some kind of ecclesiastical euphoria. All these open-ended and semi-structured arrangements are fascinating, but Barthmus is also a curious one – even with his lazy, battered pitch, his soft-toned voice is both comforting and wistful. It also heightens the longing tone set in the gorgeous Laketop Swimmers, a fragmented, reverb-drenched reverie that swells with its billowing synths and weeping strings. Barthmus has a good ear when it comes to pacing, and he picks just the right time to follow the chipper, but still melancholic title track with Black Noise, which breaks wide open with a brisk, cracking anthem filled with gushing vitality.

Sun Airway conducts Soft Fall with a unique command, never straying from its drifting atmosphere even as it continually delivers a batch of catchy, highly replayable songs. Barthmus bridges the facility of sampling without losing sight of pop songcraft, finely selecting all the necessary components without ever exhausting his reservoir. Barthmus gets just the right uniformity in mashing symphonic arrangements with lavishing synth effects without ever patting himself in the back. As far as beauty is concerned, well, let’s just say it’s categorically impossible to go above one’s lofty expectations. John Keats once wrote: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”, a quote that resonates with the dedication Barthmus has put into making the sublime resound with such joyful elation. If you can take anything out of Soft Fall, it’s that its creator couldn’t be happier with the end result. And that should be enough.