Their sonic world—woozily theatrical and emotionally a little hard to read, as if a great sadness lurks just below its surface—is perhaps as close as you can get to living inside a David Lynch movie without losing your sanity. And with last year's Ryan Gosling-fronted neo-noir thriller Drive, it seemed that Hollywood finally took notice, presenting Italians-style arpeggiating synths and gauzy vocals as a kind of alternate-universe pop music for a world of unforgiving gangsters and gold-lamé track jackets.
Symmetry, the latest project from Johnny Jewel (along with Nat Walker), certainly possesses that same peculiar cinematic sweep. But Themes for an Imaginary Film, the group's deeply ambitious debut album, is a different beast altogether: "cinematic" may not be as accurate as "novelistic" in describing a record as sprawling, mysterious and immersive as this one. While kickstarted in part by Jewel's involvement in the Drive soundtrack (as he recently told Pitchfork, he began writing music for the film before the producers eventually went with the more experienced Cliff Martinez), Themes doesn't feel like the score for something so much as the thing in and of itself—a work of intricate storytelling and thematic sophistication.
Though Themes begins as Drive, with a ticking wristwatch and an ear illicitly turned to police radio frequencies, their explicit similarities end there. (It's worth noting that Themes absolutely lacks a pleasing pop moment like College and Electric Youth's "A Real Hero," which I'm sure lodged itself in the heads of more than a few moviegoers upon Drive's release.) That ticking of time, and all the monotony and nerves therein implied, becomes the album's driving force, assimilating into the gloriously unquantized sixteenth notes its brittle drum machines and sleepy step sequencers chug out over 36 moody variations.
Once the initial stomp of "City of Dreams" quiets, "Over the Edge" places us out on the highway in the dead of night, and it's under the hypnotic slow-motion strobe of passing streetlights and noisy washes of speeding semis that we stay for just over two hours, our destination uncertain but inevitably far off. Jewel's hallmarks are everywhere but made strange, pregnant with newfound significance: we feel the miles passing all too slowly in "Behind the Wheel"'s motionless strings, an acute loneliness in the melodramatic chords of "Jackie's Eyes" and "Winner Takes All," the tingle of a flashback to a purer time in "The Fading Faces"'s too-ethereal bells. But Jewel also builds on the musical tropes he's best known for, giving us entirely ambient moments like the masterfully creepy "Mind Games" that hint at a sort of compositional sophistication he's only now beginning to show. To wit, throughout, things grow quiet or even silent, confident he's not losing us, even when the tracks drift seemingly into the ether.
The album comes full circle with "Streets Of Fire," its only vocal track (featuring the coy, imperfect deadpan of the Chromatics' Ruth Radelet) and a subtle reminder that we're indeed listening to an Italians Do It Better record. But without a beat to stand on, the human voice sounds more lost in the shadows than it ever has in Jewel's music. "My eyes blind by headlight glare, I'm still here," Radelet sighs, her words particularly resonant in this context. If the Italians roster has long sought to lend electronic music an idiosyncratic sort of humanity, then it's taken this particularly epic iteration of that sound to invoke real human complexity. Like the phantom motion you feel laying in bed after long hours in transit, Themes for an Imaginary Film is bound to stick with you, drawing you in deeper with each turn of the ignition.