Ryan Lott's Wall of Sound
by Jericho Cerrona
Perched somewhere between a post-millennial Phil Spector and an apocalyptic film score composer, singer/songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Ryan Lott has taken his considerable talents to new heights on his fourth proper full-length as Son Lux. Lurching from drone, hip-hop-inflected grooves, classical compositions, avant-garde pop, and everything in between, Bones is a bonafide game-changer, even as 2013's Lanterns was itself something of a miracle. This time, Lott shares co-writing credit with guitarist/composer Rafig Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang, constituting the first Son Lux album recorded as a fully-fledged band. If Lanterns was brilliantly conceived art pop, then Bones is the sound of Lott diving even further into the genre abyss; concocting something that continually upends expectations. Call it genre-deconstructing indie music for the beat-making generation.
Those who balk at melodramatic flourishes should probably stay clear of Bones, which not only dabbles in maximal crescendos, but practically is dependent upon them. Meanwhile, Lott's grim lyrical content; (human loneliness, political misuses of power, the longing to escape one's mundane existence, etc) sometimes veers into self-indulgence, but his penchant for experimentation remains as deft as ever. The regular solo Son Lux signifiers remain; grand orchestral flourishes, minimalist beats, background female vocals (courtesy of Daughter's Elena Tonra, among others), Lott's affected vocals, but there's a welcome inclusionary nature here that gives the other musicians a chance to shine. For example, "This Time" features Chang's rhythmic, African-inflected drumming over a women's choir led by Holychild's Liz Nistico before descending into squealing industrial noise. "Undone" utilizes intricate guitar plucking, off-timed drum patterns, and eerie synths. "White Lies" has booming keyboards, processed beats, gorgeous female chanting, and Lott's wavering assertion They take hold of our young/ They empty our lungs. Eventually, the track morphs into what sounds like a rave dance track, complete with a skittering beat, strangled voices, and lazer-like synths. It's this kind of collaborative creativity that typifies the album as a whole, which makes even some of Lott's more navel-gazing tendencies less problematic. The more is more attitude toward shape-shifting compositions means that whenever a memorable hook or chorus is discovered, he just as often dovetails into some other sonic diversion. In a way, Bones is like listening to a brilliant wizard who knows how to perform too many spells and can't help himself.
The line between pretension and genius is a muddled one, and there are times that Lott confuses the two, or is combining both impulses simultaneously. Perhaps that is what makes Bones such a fascinating listen; tracks often begin with what sounds like an accessible pop structure, such as single "Change is Everything", which as an irresistible chorus, but then upends it's Top 40 potential by adding in glitchy start-stop beats and overlapping, chaotic vocal chants. This seems to be the Sun Lox model; use the basic tenants of a standard pop song and then throw in possibly alienating textures to upset the trajectory. Perhaps this is why, despite being well respected in indie circuits, Lott has never reached mainstream success. His music is too cluttered, too weird, too in love with it's own overproduced bombast to court commerciality. Still, it's hard to deny the ear-pleasing stomp of "You Don't Know Me", with it's moaning robotic voices, oppressive clattering drum beats, and lines like I feel you tracing my scars/ but you don't know me. Truthfully, though Lott uses cryptic short-hand and often clumsily reaches for emotion, there's a real attempt here at finding individual freedom in a cold and empty world. As a treatise on human apathy and loneliness, Bones is only partially effective. As a model for maximalist genre-deconstruction, however, it's a transfixing statement of purpose.