Beyond the familiar descriptors for music—the usual suspects of adjectives and a few key action phrases—exists a whole world of nouns to call on. Voices can be velvet, synths water, and drums dry earth. James Tillman’s new album is exactly as its title suggests: silk noise.
Silk Noise Reflex, the New York–based artist’s first full-length album, is smooth and delicate. Woven from the Tillman’s soulful voice, gentle synths, and quietly intricate beats, the album exhibits a thoughtful mixture of R&B and soul with touches of jazz, hip-hop, and other modes of experimentation. The debut contains the fingerprints of many talents—Beau Sorenson (Death Cab for Cutie, Garbage), who mixed it, Carlos Arredondo (Deerhoof), who mastered it, and the incomparable Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, who served as executive producer—but the end result is polished and understated.
James Tillman is best when the experimentation shows through. On the album opener, “Intrinsic Infinite,” he couches a spare soul melody in the fits and starts of electro-pop production, adding in the lightest touches of electronic blips and lasers over sparkling keys. In “Ms. Urbane,” a whispered falsetto melody floats over the hum of jazz chords on guitar and pulse of hip-hop beat, sounding truly liberated when the chorus emerges with rounds of “Let it go, babe.” On the closing track, “Missed Encounters,” a Phoenix-like guitar riff leads into Frank Ocean–like synths and one of the most tender melodies on the album, which asks, “You hold the key to my heart / But why you keep losing it?”
Tillman is less successful, though, on his more straightforward songs. On “Self Portrait of a New Yorker,” for example, he sings in a lower, more robust register over simple guitar lines, sounding more like the British soul singer Michael Kiwanuka, with whom he draws comparisons. Between the plainer composition and the more direct lyrics (“Here I find myself alone again / But I don’t know what it is / Do I push people away or am I shy?”), Tillman loses some of the muted beauty he excels at elsewhere in the album.
It’s that quiet beauty that better captures what “Self Portrait of a New Yorker” claims to do in its title. Since his releasing his first EP, Shangri La, in 2014, Tillman has graduated from college, where he studied vocal jazz, and entered the big bad world, and it shows. Where Shangri La focused on love, Silk Noise Reflex deals with isolation, anxiety, and the moments of connection that sustain you between them. It shows in the titles of his songs—“Ms. Malaise,” “Human Behavior,” “Rat Race,” and “Missed Connections”—the reflective and confessional lyrics scattered throughout them, and the nervously hovering vocals. Summoning the experience of starting out in a city, Tillman shows the breadth of his talents by weaving silk out of dirty threads.