Leafcutter John’s latest album Resurrection chimes in with a sonorous bell, swept forward through layers of resonating frequencies, leaving a wave of serenity in its wake. It’s John Barton’s his first solo work as this alias since 2006’s The Forrest and the Sea and it makes an indubitable impression in the listener a mere few bars in. In the repercussions left by the bells comes a low chant, a human voice that impresses a sense of foreboding on the music, the serenity disrupted by a strong dissonance applied by the vocalisation. The track falls into an amorphous stream of stutters that disturb the legato flow of the track heretofore in staccato glitches, not too dissimilar from Amon Tobin’s work on Isam. These disruptive elements don’t however mar the overall beauty of the composition but instead work alongside the sweeping tones to give the piece a depth not afforded by those simplest parts. The combination of these two contrasting elements, the slow moving beauty of the rich sustaining chords and the destructive nature of the harsh digital tones, is the central theme that runs concurrently through all the songs on Resurrection and it is no accident that we should find it there. Aerial photographs of the 2011 Japanese tsunami inspired John for this album, and a picture starts forming when we learn more about how the artist interpreted these photographs into music. “I would create complete, fully-formed compositions, then later, I’d come back to them, playing the part of the destroyer, scraping and smearing away elements, weathering, piling up and re-ordering them, as if they’d been hit by a natural disaster.” I had only turned to the John’s words after listening to the album a few times and I had experienced a slight discomfort when I returned to the music. A sense of guilt pinched at my admiration of the beauty in Barton’s creation in light of the circumstances. Was I missing something? Am I supposed to be reflecting on some hidden misery on Resurrection? Although Barton often employs dissonances, they resolve like they always do in music; and even though he ‘destroys’ the original composition, he does it in a manner that is conducive to the progression of the compositions. The music, much like the title, is buoyant rather than deprecating.
I stumble through the album again, once again admiring the splendour of the compositions and it’s by the time I get to Gulps again that the penny drops. I realise there is no benefit to fall into a cause-and-effect mentality for this album. Gulps is the result of specifically designed software layering 7.1 billion layers of recordings of the North Sea, a layer for each person on earth at the time of recording, but the result would be no less if I wasn’t aware of it. The breath over the clarinet’s mouthpiece highlights the music in the process itself, but it never overshadows the result of the note. It is so easy to get swept up in the brilliance of these processes, especially in the way Barton employs them, that I found myself ignoring them completely for Resurrection. They are mere a side-notes and often just conflates the music, leading to an uneasy feeling that I am unable to find in the music. It was important that I approach Leafcutter John’s newest album objectively, and although I can’t know for sure without asking the artist directly, I think it is something that John might be encouraging. By ‘destroying’ those original recordings, he manages to subvert them into something that should be appreciated only as their final forms, never divulging anything of their origins. Even the long legato bows during Resurrection, which might at first appear like it is in its original form, are dusted with white noise, blurring any defined associations with what was left behind. It lends a beauty to these ‘destructive’ processes that are rather more constructive in their execution. As a result, Resurrection comes together as something far more organic and human than the sum of its parts might suggests. The effects is aided by the ambiguous vocalisations on songs like I know you can and Endless wave, but for the most part, it is exactly in the consequences of John’s destruction, where the rich elements are given further depth.
One can possibly return to the concept behind the work after hearing it and try to draw conclusions, but I fear that no two conclusions would be the same. Resurrection remains a blank canvas, a Robert Rauschenberg type of creation that allows the listener to fill the music with his/her own associations. It might translate for some in an inherent beauty in a destructive force like a tidal wave; or could relay the human part played in creating a natural disaster. Whatever they are, Leafcutter John lets you make your own assumptions on Resurrection and doesn’t press the issue at all with loaded musical commentary. He merely plants seeds and leaves it up to us. The album is evocative, but it never transposes into a single emotion. A title like Music under the water might have severe insinuations when we consider the origins of the album, but the music itself is serene and even meditative as open chords ebb and flow around metallic harps. It’s exactly contradictions like these that I found most rewarding when listening to the album. It makes for music that is both beautiful and cerebral, and on Resurrection either of those elements are indicative of the other, but their combined result is its most impressive feat.