Review: Tim Hecker's Love Streams

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TIM HECKER’S eighth studio album is a hard-left departure from the sheets-of-sound ambient style he’s worked in for nearly a decade. This is the first Hecker album where you can hear the individual parts rather than taking them all together as a blur. We can hear sequencers, synth leads, voices, and a curious fake fuzz-guitar lead, all working in harmony to create something that’s a bit messier and more complex than most of his work. There are plenty of churchy organs and whitecaps of noise—this is a Tim Hecker album after all—but they act as foundations for the tangles of sound in the foreground rather than being front and center. The final result sounds unlike anything Hecker’s done in his 15-year career, save perhaps 2013’s Daniel Lopatin collaboration Instrumental Tourist.

To those only familiar with his dronier work like Harmony In Ultraviolet or Ravedeath, 1972, Hecker’s decision to collaborate with Lopatin might have been baffling. Hecker’s best-known works make extensive use of “real” instruments like church organs and small orchestras, while Lopatin and his Oneohtrix Point Never project are practically synonymous with “digital.” Truth is, Hecker is a child of a far different ambient landscape: that of the early 2000s, when the digital world was new and exciting and ambient musicians were enthralled by its implications. Early Hecker albums like 2001’s Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again and especially 2003’s Radio Amor were filled with the same clicks, cuts, and glitches that were a fixture of the early ‘00s ambient in which labels like Raster-Noton and Mille Plateaux specialized.

Love Streams is a throwback to this attitude. Hecker described “the transcendental voice in the age of Auto-Tune” and “liturgical aesthetics after Yeezus” as inspirations for Love Streams (one wonders what he thought of The Life Of Pablo, which wore its Christian inspiration on its sleeve). Though there’s plenty of Auto-Tune on Love Streams, it certainly doesn’t sound much like Yeezus, and these themes are in no way essential to enjoying the music present here. But Hecker’s intent is clear. Love Streams is a digital abstraction of something real and tangible. This time around, it’s Christian choir music; the Icelandic Choir Ensemble, as arranged by indie-classical lifer Johann Johannson, is Hecker’s main collaborator here. They sing their hearts out, then Hecker chops them up and slathers them with dive-bomb distortion thick digital noise, and rows and rows of wailing synths. The result sounds like nothing so much as an army of angels singing from the midst of a hurricane.

If that sounds dramatic, that’s because it is. Love Streams can almost feel campily over-the-top at times, with all these different parts raging against each other in a bombastic Sturm und Drang spectacle. Rather than evoking the vast empty spaces of a church or the awe of divine presence, as his church organ-oriented Ravedeath, 1972 did, Love Streams is all fire and brimstone, thunder and lightning. There’s barely a quiet moment on the whole thing, the brief ambient doodle “Up Red Bull Creek” and the penultimate “Collapse Sonata” being the only shelter from the storm. (Even the latter devolves into noise at the end, segueing into drone-metallic closer “Black Phase.”) Love Streams is ambient in style, but not in function. You’re unlikely to nod off this thing, and it certainly doesn’t want to transport you to some unearthly wonderland. Rather, it’s content to rage and rumble in the periphery of the audio field.

In fact, figuring out exactly how to listen to Love Streams was a bit difficult. It doesn't really work in the background, but it’s also not really the kind of thing that rewards undivided focus. It’s intense, but it didn’t instill in me any real feelings of dread, awe, or terror. Often, I found myself forgetting what I was listening to before a bolt of noise or an unexpected textural change brought me back to my feet. Love Streams was most enjoyable while I was out for a walk. It made every back alley seem a bit more mysterious, each cloud a bit more likely to bring showers. It was pretty nice synced to an episode of Planet Earth too.

I’ve concluded that the best time to listen to Love Streams is as an accompaniment to something equally dramatic. That’s a pretty specific circumstance in which to listen to an album, and as such, I found Love Streams less fulfilling than most of Hecker’s recent output. But fans with a high stress tolerance and an inclination towards the noisier side of ambient will likely find plenty to love about this record. Furthermore, it’s fun to see an artist who could have comfortably produced variations on Harmony In Ultraviolet for the rest of his career—probably good ones at that—go outside his comfort zone. Love Streams is far from Hecker’s best release. But it’s a promising development in his career, in that it proves not only that Hecker hasn’t run out of ideas but that he’s still bursting with them. B