Lanterns, the third LP by electronic post-rocker Son Lux (aka Ryan Lott), is an album that had me cursing audibly on the first few listens. The expletives ranged from euphoric holy-shits to flabbergasted (and often startled) what-the-fucks, but as someone who doesn’t usually talk to himself I was a little surprised at the sheer volume of expletives this guy was able to elicit. This is a volatile album, and that’s exactly what makes it great.
Now, I have to go on record that I’d never listened to a single Son Lux song before I heard Lanterns, so this review will be more or less without context. All I know is that someone on NPR referred to his earlier work as “advanced,” which I assume is public radio-speak for “weird to be point of being nearly unlistenable.” I’m sure I’ll give it a shot one of these days.
I’m also not typically a fan of reviews that pick through an album track-by-track, as I think they have a tendency to miss the proverbial forest for the trees, but in this case I’m going to make an exception. Son Lux covers so many stylistic bases that I feel obligated to let new listeners know what they’re in for.
Lanterns opens on “Alternate World,” a somewhat airy, down-tempo track that offers a thoroughly misleading impression of what’s to come. What it does successfully introduce, however, is a bit of the operatic melodrama that defines the rest of the record.
This is followed by “Lost it to Trying,” which is one of my favorite songs of the lot. Exaggerated falsetto vocals float over the top of what sounds like the bastard child of a hair-band drum machine and a David Lang oboe section. While that’s probably not a description Lott would want on the back of the box, the combination of disparate sounds and layered rhythms actually creates a remarkably beautiful effect.
Soon comes “Easy,” the track that any self-respecting music promoter would use to advertise this album. It’s understated, sexy, and would feel right at home alongside Massive Attack in a smoky, dystopian nightclub. That, and it sports one of the best uses of a baritone sax I’ve ever heard (see “Five Little Rooms” by Menomena for the other one).
“No Crimes” is bursting with energy, driven by an almost warlike drumbeat that doesn’t let up for the entire five minutes. Even in sections where the song takes a breather, the percussion feels like it’s treading water impatiently, urging the choir vocals to hurry up and get back to the good stuff.
“Pyre” is another track that features an operatic choral section, but it also presents Lott’s vocals in a much quieter and more vulnerable atmosphere than the previous songs. Following the drawn-out introduction, though, that’s all blown to hell by a gloriously crunchy, almost Tobacco-esque synth bass line. This was one of those startling moments I mentioned earlier, and it’s perfect. The song is powerful and dynamic, and despite the diversity of its elements it flows together incredibly well.
The last track that really impressed me was “Enough of Our Machines.” It opens with a mellow, albeit somewhat ominous piano, and slowly transitions into reverb-heavy vocals over pizzicato and staccato violins. It’s very pretty and surprisingly acoustic, and then, much like “Pyre,” it abruptly drops a jarring (and similarly staccato) synth line. But within a few measures, the piano, violins, and vocals join back in seamlessly to create an eclectic little symphony of sorts.
The album closes with “Plan the Escape” and “Lanterns Lit,” bringing the work full circle with throwbacks to the more contemplative, airy sounds of the opener. The final lyrics are haunting, declaring, “You just could not last forever / Could you / You just could not last / For me.” Even though Lott’s delivery may be a little affected and overdone, he runs with the melodrama and makes it work.
What makes this album stand out to me is the fact that it doesn’t feel like it has any fat. There aren’t really any songs that could be cut while maintaining its thematic cohesion, and pretty much everything feels intentional. There are distinct, almost theatrical movements to it, which give the impression of a well-defined introduction, climax, and denouement.
Once the initial novelty and weirdness wears off, you’re still left with a complex album that warrants multiple future listens. It has elements of electro-pop sensibility that make it accessible to an apparently wider audience than his previous work, but it maintains an intricate attention to detail that gives it real depth. Lanterns is the sort of album that will appeal to trip-hoppers and contemporary classical snobs alike, which is something that very few musicians can pull off.