opinion bySCOTT SWANSON
As Nas once said (or was it Ecclesiastes?), “There’s nothing new under the sun.” And so, it’s easy to spot the influences of Ryan Hemsworth. The bubbling analogue waves of Aphex Twin. The cinematic cool jazz of DJ Shadow. The wide-eyed electro-twee of the Knife’s early works. But hey, we all have influences. It’s what we do with them that counts. On Guilt Trips, the Toronto-based producer’s debut long-player, Hemsworth crafts a bright, engaging amalgamation of his forbearers that always looks forward and rarely sounds derivative.
Hemsworth has many gifts, but more than anything Guilt Trips is a testament to his excellent feel for collaborators and his innate ability to play to their strengths. The album opens with “Small and Lost,” featuring lovely and ethereal mic duties from English siren Sinead Harnett: “Softly tell me – you’ll give me what I need.” The title is a misnomer though, because “Small and Lost” sounds quite the opposite – it announces itself immediately with a driving piano figure and negotiates its way around some unexpectedly dynamic turns over its short run time.
The most surprising alley-oop is dished out by Internet-famous rapper Kitty (formerly Kitty Pryde), whose narcoleptic, stream-of-conscious monotone delivery actually kind of kills it on album closer “Day/Night/Sleep System.” Another highlight comes courtesy of Will Wisenfeld, otherwise known as Baths, who guests on “Still Cold.” Over lonely, icy synths straight out of Silent Shout, Wisenfeld sings “it’s almost funny that you’re still so cold, and I think you’re worth the bullshit” (and drops a Taylor Swift reference for good measure). It’s the album’s most emotionally direct – and affecting – moment.
In fact, Hemsworth is not afraid of directness. There are some big beats here, beats not that far removed from underground hip hop – not surprising from a man who’s worked with Main Attrakions and remixed Danny Brown. The especially cinematic “Weird Life,” which twists a variation of the main theme from Underworld’s “Born Slippy” into something more aggressive and propulsive, sounds like it could soundtrack a car commercial. “One For Me,” meanwhile, is damn near R&B – a slower burning, less urgent take on Massive Attack’s unstoppable “Safe From Harm.” This is a headphone record, sure – but it’s not an insular record. It demands space.
It’s not all bangers, though. With its splatter-house cymbals and whispered vocals pleading “please don’t trust me,” “Happiness and Dreams Forever” is a creepy, disconcerting winner. Less successful is the skittering “Ryan Must Be Destroyed,” which rides a tubular bell riff and generic “woo!” sample but never really takes off.
Clocking in at just over 36 minutes, Guilt Trips is a tight, cohesive and digestible listen. And while there are no overt radio songs here, one gets the impression that Hemsworth could spin some pop magic from his laptop should the desire ever arise. He’s spoken about the potential of working with fellow Canadian Drake – a partnership that would make a lot of sense should it come to fruition.
In the meantime, Guilt Trips is legit – an EDM record that’s smart, tasteful and fun. Maybe nothing new, but pretty damn good. [B]