The two EPs Andy Stott released in 2011, Passed Me By and We Stay Together, explore a range of gray timbres and textures, evoking a bleakly lit urban landscape of stone, metal and decay. We actually seem to be under the city a good deal of the time, not just in the kind of basement clubs where, at high volume, this music could work you over, mind and body, but in the kind of abscesses beneath a city that retain traces of past life there, memories without subjects around to make sense of them, fleeting half-images that never quite emerge out of blur and grain, sparkling dust and shadow. Luxury Problems returns to the engaging disquiet of the sound world mapped out by these two EPs, but by incorporating vocals to a far greater degree it summons a fragile and haunting beauty that they only faintly suggest.
Scattered vocal samples appear on Passed Me By and We Stay Together, but they are the exception rather than the rule, are obscured and employed with obvious reserve. On Luxury Problems, almost all of the vocals that appear are recognizably provided by Alison Skidmore, an opera singer and Stott’s former piano teacher. (There are some pitch-shifted vocal loops on “Sleepless” and “Expecting” that could be her or could be anyone else.) For the most part her vocals are cut to fit the feel of Stott’s heavy variant of slow-motion house, looped, repeating, one syllable sometimes twisted around another, as on opener “Numb,” into a haze of ashen hues. “Hatch the Plan” is, however, structured like a minimalist pop song, one in which the words Skidmore sings are, unlike elsewhere, largely comprehensible. “The sun’s about…to explode,” we hear again and again, and the chorus is a gorgeous counterpoint of vocal harmonies swooning over sludgy sub-bass and a dry, relentless beat.
Luxury Problems moves impressively between dread and sublimity, and at times the two are, as on “Hatch the Plan,” made to coincide. The darkest track is “Expecting,” a compressed piece of plodding techno suffused throughout with voices distended almost beyond recognition, swells of vaporized humanity that surface in the track’s final minute, ghostly and not unlike those decayed into life by The Caretaker on his soundtrack for Patience (After Sebald). They seem to recur on the following track, “Luxury Problems,” as an element of structure, droning in the background as the track slinks along a sinister bassline and Skidmore’s weary siren song calls us out into the pitch black night. A number of tracks begin and end with dense, grainy ambient sections, making the record as much about inhabiting atmospheres as being led like sleepwalkers into the ether by sluggish but brutal beats. Fittingly, the record creeps to a close with “Leaving,” which floats forward, urged on by two-note pulses of synthesizer, without a beat, Skidmore’s vocals treated with enough reverb to suggest the towering, vaulted ceilings of a medieval cathedral.
Passed Me By and We Stay Together, as grim, nocturnal, and subterranean as they can be, are still cut through by narrow shafts of light, bands just broad enough so that one can see the particles of dust materialize when the light falls upon them. Luxury Problems inherits and multiplies this light, becoming in the process something else, however much its textures, tempos, and shades are those of the work leading up to it. Part of the art of electronic music has long been the treatment of the human voice, whether it has decomposed and dehumanized it, or invented ways to raise it to another power altogether, beyond the human, rather than beneath it. If for nothing else, Luxury Problems would be worth a listen for the sheer creativity with which Stott has given other lives to the vocal takes Alison Skidmore provided him. That it brings these lives into contact, hypnotically, with the supple darkness Andy Stott has been getting more and more adept at spinning as of late, makes it a recording not to be missed.
Stream: Andy Stott – “Numb”