When the album was announced in April, Martyn told RA to expect a record "much more back-to-basics than Ghost People." And in that regard, the album works—his focus here is on dance-floor impact, and he's left no hi-hat crunch or kick-drum decay untweaked in pursuit of it. The combinations, though, are less than the sum of their parts.
On "Empty Mind," for example, Martyn settles a bit too comfortably into a loop of perfectly skipping drums and twisting bass, augmented only by a few moments of synth and less-than-compelling vocal snippets. As an album cut, it's a bit of a bore, and while DJs would get plenty of use out of it, you don't imagine they'd let it sit in the mix for more than a minute or two. With pads, acid bass and plenty of keenly mixed percussion, "Two Leads And A Computer" isn't much more than it claims to be, its rhythmic switch-ups and breakdowns only calling attention to its relatively monotonous composition.
Even Martyn's denser arrangements lack the danger he once courted in the studio, reverting to pretty average party-starting house and bass tropes. A collaboration with Four Tet, "Glassbeadgames," cobbles together the sort of stabby synths and soaring warped vocals these guys could write in their sleep—a two-for-one greatest-hits montage that sells both artists short.
Martyn fares much better on the album's other collaborative cut. Thick with sinister hiss, dubbed-out bass, clanging electro drums and Inga Copeland's artfully disaffected vocals, "Love Of Pleasure" shows him stepping onto uncertain ground and doing something spectacular—as he tends to when he's out there. Once you peel back the reverb, it's a pop tune at heart, so the considered approach that falls flat elsewhere on the album works to his advantage here. If The Air Between Words finds Martyn less interested in breaking new ground than perfecting the sort of 4/4 cuts so many others are toiling away at, then he's found a worthy partner in Copeland—her faded aesthetic and his perfectionism have pushed-and-pulled each other to a happy medium where both can shine. And that's really all that's lacking from such expertly assembled music: a bit more art to draw us into the craft.