Some albums try to accomplish a ton in one go. You almost have to, to a certain degree, credit the ambition of such records. Whether or not they reached the stars almost matters less than whether or not they tried in the first place. And as sonic ambitions go, Paper Sailboat exemplifies the truly ambitious.
The question is: does this record – a collection of electronic diversions and moods and rhythms – succeed? Deeper still: what constitutes a success for a mass of so many ideas? If Paper Sailboat, as a record, is intent on both exploring sound and evoking feeling then it does succeed. However, in giving you a uniform sense of what the larger entity behind the record is capable of, it does fail. While not altogether a bad thing (the album thrives on variation and terra infirma) it does detract from a sense of identity or cohesion.
So be it. This record is your schizophrenic best friend.
So, let’s assume Paper Sailboat is predicated on the idea of mixing and matching music styles, ideas, and influences – sometimes between songs, sometimes right in the middle of one. It certainly succeeds in doing all of that: measured transitions are shifting gears over the album’s “energy” arch; “beginnings, middles, and ends” have their own identities. But in order to gauge the viability of that particular concept for a record – as a lesson in diversity – you have to make comparisons to records that may sound nothing like this one, but do share the trait of serving as a lesson in diversity. Masterworks like DJ Shadow’s The Private Press spring to mind, and that’s a lot to live up to. I’ll spare you my explicit comparisons, but that’s where my head is at.
Let’s be clear about the variation on this record: you only get one “General Electric” here, and that’s it. Bright and vibrant, full of guitar-pop pep – when the song is over, there is no revisiting that feeling, much less revisiting the use of guitars. It’s a fine song to open the record with: consistent and reassuring but not overly repetitive or strictly conventional… but it is misleading with regards to the rest of the album, to say the least.
“General Electric” also brought up an internal debate. I began to wonder whether this song – to say nothing of the album as a whole – would benefit from vocals or not. I’m not entirely convinced either way. I can see an argument for a vocal melody or at least some sort of sample on the first track, but only because I could find room for it inside of the arrangement – in my mind. I even started humming it. But it wouldn’t really be necessary. Whether the addition of vocals rounds out a listening experience for you or not, I think it’s safe to say that Paper Sailboats has still created a compelling and “human-sounding” record entirely devoid of any human singing. (There are spoken samples in both “Claire De Lune” and “Peace.”)
As you delve deeper in Paper Sailboat, you’ll begin to notice the larger rhythm to the experiment emerge – and you’ll notice yourself begin to fall into it. So, when you have traversed “General Electric” and it’s trustworthiness and “Ambieight” with its lush strangeness and then that fragmented, beat-injected rendition of “Claire de Lune” – you will be somewhat, but not entirely, prepared for the anachronistic “Retro Oblivion” and even the waltzing ¾ time signature towards the end of “Displacement.” There are big and flashy moments, small and delicate moments, and a healthy survey of all terrain in between.
From a production standpoint, the album never becomes too infatuated with it’s own borrowed styles. There’s an 8-bit aesthetic pervasive throughout the record, and it is especially pronounced on “Retro Oblivion” and “Eighty-Eighterer” – but it hasn’t engulfed the record entirely. It’s woven into sampled drums, bells, textural samples, piano, and warm synth pads (and one guitar) – and entirely absent on songs like “Displacement.”
Speaking of: the progression of “Displacement” is dreamy, shifting, and ornate. It may be my favorite song, using space and abrupt transitions to float in and out of a massive darkness, waltzing through the shadows. The outro piano, dirty with the distant sound of someone else’s music faintly audible in the background, is still somehow deeply affecting. “Atlas Telemon” was another standout track: a nearly eight minute odyssey, which chases down a pitchy tape sample over trance-inducing rhythms. Layers begin to soar overhead like clouds forming in the sky. The song is an elaborate and exhilarating effort.
Even while this record easily overwhelms with its scope and variation, it does so also with its heart and personality. Whereas so much electronic music is built on dance-floor expectations or on the backs of yesteryear’s receding fads, Paper Sailboat is engineered around a specific set of tastes and preferences – even dreams – that jump the constraints of time or genre. If you start digging hard, you might catch a glimpse of a little Flying Lotus here, or a little Orbital there, or for a split second you might have even heard some Jega or Underworld – but not for very long. From 30,000 feet, the record is fairly unique and stands alone.
This album is electronic music that breathes with its creators; it reflects the individuals (and primary individual) involved with the shaping of the sound in a precise but human way. That is the record’s real strength, and the way in which it succeeds as a body of work. The machine reached the human.