Darkstar are one of the strangest stories stemming from the late '00s dubstep boom. With 2010's North, they shuffled from depressive garage music to equally downcast pop, seemingly instantly. Outside of some tonal similarities and a general mood of despair, that album had almost nothing in common with their music up to that point. Gone were the beats, and in their place was James Buttery, whose voice became the music's focal point. Maybe the strangest part is that this leap of faith worked. The new direction suited their sadsack songwriting, and North turned out to be a beautiful collection of forlorn digital love songs. They've since made a move from Hyperdub to Warp, and so their music has morphed too, from hesitant whispers into resplendent, Grizzly Bear-esque serenades.
News From Nowhere starts off as we expect it to: with some quaint electronic sounds and hushed voices. It isn't until first single "Timeaway" that we get a glimpse of what the English trio have been up to for three years, and it's almost blinding. The falsetto chorus soars, and though the lyrics are essentially unintelligible, the swaying melody says more than any words could. Darkstar are no longer knob-twiddlers trying their hand at verse-chorus-verse. Their songs move with fluidity that was absent from North's malfunctioning machinery, and Buttery's vocals now hang in the air, rather than flickering in a perpetual threat to snuff themselves out.
In other words, this one is even more of a "pop" album than the first—but it's a very British pop album, thick with melancholy and darkly pretty. It lives in the shadow of grey-skies post-punk and in the memory of McCartney II, the ex-Beatle's misunderstood 1980 synthesizer album. The nursery-rhyme melodies of "A Day's Pay For A Day's Work," for example, are set in a world of slightly shifting gears and melting wires. They explore ecstatic vocal layering on "Amplified Ease" and "You Don't Need A Weatherman," mining a vein that's irreverent like McCartney, but impish and modern like Animal Collective.
It would be easy for all these conflicting impulses to congeal into tepid soup, yet News From Nowhere avoids such a fate with its careful push-and-pull. The running order feels almost as painstakingly considered as the songwriting itself. The bigger pop moments are offset by ideas set adrift on lapping waves, from the Arctic panorama of closer "Hold Me Down" through to the foggy visions of "-" and the wobbly "Armonica," which feels like its tired limbs can't hold its lead melodies without faltering. And like all good pop, News From Nowhere is brief, never falling victim to the temptation to get lost in soundscaping. Instead, it builds those immersive realms in just a few minutes with each track.
If Darkstar have kept anything from their earliest music, it's the wrenching feeling of dull pain, and a distant sort of poignancy—the same formula that made "Aidy's Girl Is A Computer" such a profoundly affecting moment in dance music. Instead, with News From Nowhere they've found a way to concentrate that emotion into a something that resembles regular poignancy instead.
Buy Darkstar - News From Nowhere at
Tracklist: Darkstar - News From Nowhere 01. Light Body Clock Starter
05. A Day's Pay For A Day's Work
06. Young Heart's
07. Amplified Ease
08. You Don't Need A Weatherman
09. Bed Music - North View
10. Hold Me Down
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