Blood Orange: Freetown Sound review – a pop changeling’s pell-mell scrapbook – The Guardian

The career of Dev Hynes is an intriguing one. As a pop producer and songwriter, he’s carved out a niche for himself in recent years, not so much as a reliable hitmaker, but as someone stars can turn to when their albums need an injection of scenester cool: Kylie Minogue and Carly Rae Jepsen have availed themselves of his services, while his collaborations with Solange Knowles are often held to have influenced her sister Beyoncé to take a less mainstream direction. As an artist in his own right, he’s proved trickier to pin down, shifting musical styles in a way that’s suggestive less of eclecticism than of fitful restlessness. He started life as frontman of the Test Icicles, a noisy punk trio whose lasting contribution to popular culture might have been as owners of the 00s’ worst band name, had Does It Offend You, Yeah? not lumbered into view. Then he was Lightspeed Champion, a confessional singer-songwriter in an ill-fitting wig. Around the time his production career took off and he relocated from the UK to the States, he became Blood Orange, singing about drag queens and homeless gay teenagers over a skeletal, alternative take on 80s pop-funk.

The man behind the records cuts a faintly mysterious figure – rarely playing live, seldom giving interviews, and when he does, frequently preferring to talk to fellow musicians rather than journalists – but his third album under the Blood Orange name is billed as a grand personal statement: musically expansive and politicised. It certainly pushes on a lot of hot-button topics involving gender, sexuality and race. Virtually the first thing you hear is an extended speech, delivered by a voice apparently on the verge of tears, about Missy Elliott’s positive effect on the body image of women of colour. Elsewhere, lyrics about heartbreak mingle with invocations of “Our Lady Africa”, samples of voices talking about black identity and snippets taken from the 1990 documentary about New York drag balls Paris Is Burning. In keeping with the overall tone of hazy melancholy that runs through all Hynes’s solo work, the latter clips focus not on the film’s plethora of drag queens espousing their transcendent fabulousness, but the doomed transsexual prostitute Venus Xtravaganza.

All this unspools in a chaotic, pell-mell fashion. The music jerks from 80s soul to spindly indie guitars, to stuff that sounds like the sun-bleached chillwave of Washed Out or the warped soft rock of Gayngs: the latter two cheering proof that, for a British expat sometimes held up as an embodiment of Brooklyn hipsterhood, he’s willing to explore styles that your average Brooklyn hipster would presumably consider hopelessly déclassé these days. Songs stop abruptly, or peter out into sound effects, or are bisected by audio vérité recordings. There are tracks that don’t resemble songs at all so much as sound collages: a couple of minutes featuring vocal snatches, muffled recordings of voices or the sound of New York streets, and bursts of instrumentation all jammed up against each other. The effect is of a kind of audio scrapbook.

It’s an approach that’s alternately intriguing and infuriating. On the plus side, there are a lot of fascinating ideas here, and nothing ever outstays its welcome. There are plenty of absorbing, clever production touches. Hynes is particularly good at taking sounds that usually signify comforting familiarity and twisting them until they start to feel uneasy. A string section at the close of EVP turns grating and off-key; the scratching that liberally decorates the album sounds wan and trebly and uncertain. Thank You, meanwhile, is built around the improbable idea of injecting the warm, slick sound of Magic FM-friendly 80s AOR with a strange menace. But there are moments where it feels oddly like the preliminary notes for an album rather than the finished product – like the stuff you might find on CD2 of a deluxe reissue, labelled demo versions and unreleased tracks. You find yourself wondering if the interstitial collage-like tracks might not have had more impact if they were used to separate beautifully turned songs. In fairness, sometimes they are: But You is so gorgeous, it can even invest a chorus line as mawkish and cliched as “you are special in your own way” with a certain magic; Hands Up’s frail take on nocturnal pop-soul is nearly as good. But often they precede or follow songs that sound almost as sketchy as they do complete. You listen to something like Desiree or Love Ya – the latter a fantastic chorus and an intriguing sax arrangement in search of a song – and, while they’re clearly meant to sound the way they sound, it’s hard to stop yourself thinking: would it have killed you to finish this properly?

It’s compounded by Hynes’s voice, which is a bit undernourished and tremulous. Sometimes it adds an appealing fragility and rawness, but it’s often a relief when one of the plethora of guest vocalists takes over, whether they’re a big name along the lines of Debbie Harry, or one of the plethora of lesser lights. Anyone wanting to enumerate Hynes’s skills might note that he’s clearly a sharp talent-spotter – the unknown guests here, from Ava Raiin to Bea1991, are all genuinely fantastic – although he seems to have reserved the album’s best track, a swooning, lambent ballad called Hadron Collider, for Nelly Furtado.

It’s tempting to say that Hadron Collider shows how great Hynes can be when he sets his mind to it, but the weird thing about Freetown Sound is that he clearly has set his mind to it throughout. What seems like a chaotic demonstration of undeniable but insufficiently marshalled talent is anything but: on close inspection, it’s meticulously woven together, musical ideas and lyrical refrains reappearing in different songs. Perhaps it’s almost too personal a project: in fact, listening to Freetown Sound feels not unlike reading someone’s diary. It’s often passionate, illuminating and fascinating, it frequently bears the hallmarks of self-indulgence, and some of it, you get the feeling, might only make sense to its author.


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