Review: SOHN, Rennen

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What do we expect from a SOHN record in 2017? The London-by-way-of-Vienna (and now by-way-of-Los Angeles) producer trucks in a musical style that’s gotten a lot of play since he appeared on the scene in 2012. It’s no easy feat to stay fresh, and on that point, SOHN’s second album is aptly titled. “Rennen,” German for run, finds SOHN racing to keep up with a genre that has started to outpace him in the three years since his debut album Tremors. Where many of his peers have made the leap into the mainstream or varied their sound, SOHN has largely doubled down on the alternative R&B he makes so well. The result is occasionally engaging but ultimately disappointing.

“The Wheel”, still SOHN’s best song, appeared in the wake of James Blake’s debut and the Weeknd’s mixtapes and rightly garnered instant comparisons to both, striking a balance between the two with its sensuous, downbeat production, R&Bish vocals, and general angst. All these qualities are back in full force on Rennen, but they don’t command attention as they might have three or four years ago. Consider how SOHN’s most frequent comparisons changed in the time since: James Blake is writing for Beyoncé, the Weeknd is a bona fide star, How to Dress Well is dabbling in pop songcraft, and Sampha…well, we’ll see with Sampha.

There’s no doubt SOHN, nothing if not a savvy listener, knows that times have changed, but the developments on Rennen are minor. “Hard Liquor”, sonically and lyrically, makes a foray into the club, but it hugs the wall of the dance floor instead of plunging for the center. “Conrad”, the lead single and the song with the heaviest beat, makes a similar gambit with similar results. For the most part, though, these tracks feel like an extension of Tremors.

The biggest departure from SOHN’s sound is the title track, and it’s the best song on Rennen for it. A sparse ballad built around a simple piano loop, it’s stripped back to allow his falsetto to emote to its fullest. In the past we’ve heard him stand defiant in the face of creative anxiety, but here he gives in fully to despair: “My faith don’t mean a thing.” In a way, the song is an unwitting master class in its genre, demonstrating that this hip, post-dubstep variety of R&B works best in the lowest emotional register. It’s a beautiful thing from a dark place.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that the most musically interesting moment on the album is a bit of piano. However interesting it may be in the context of SOHN’s work, it’s not surprising on any larger scale.

If anything surprises on Rennen, it’s a faint political tone. On “Conrad” we hear “We’re lost civilians with the weight of millions/We’re pawns in war living in denial.” In “Proof” he’s even more direct, singing, “We believe in a system where the bodies outweigh the cause/We believe in a system/Everybody knows it’s wrong.” As far as political music, this is a far cry from the extraordinary stuff we got in 2016, from Ahohni to Solange. Still, it feels sincere, albeit abstract. It’s certainly not what we expect from SOHN. This raises a more important question, though. Is it what we want from SOHN?

This moody, atmospheric music, once novel, is now ubiquitous. You’ve heard it playing while you shop at American Apparel. You’ll hear it in 2017, playing in the background on your Tinder date at that trendy new cocktail bar with three dollar signs on Yelp. It’s well-produced, clean and unobjectionable. Rennen fits this bill nicely, if that’s what you’re looking for. But regardless of whether it’s something you want, it’s nothing you need. C MINUS