Try not to be impressed by the opening few chords of Wide Through the Eyes of No One, a span of seconds that seems to evoke in a rich kaleidoscope the sensuousness and sophistication of Maxwell, the jangled experimental rock of Radiohead, the casual experimentation of peak Marvin Gaye. We readily forget sometimes the debt that this type of music owes to Black music, decades of an alternate stream of art music and pop music and dance music that has since become the quiet bedrock and foundation of later acclaimed geniuses. Radiohead themselves, to their credit, are fast to acknowledge the impact that Detroit techno and arthouse R&B have had on their sound, and there’s not a single musician alive that would deny loving and being influenced by soul music. Still, it takes those occasional recurrences of figures like D’Angelo, Leon Bridges and now The Steoples to shake ourselves awake, we white critical bodies, even those of us deeply engaged in the worlds of hip-hop and funk and soul.
There is a deep well of jazz present here, evoked in striking chord color tones and inventive movements of voices, but never in an overpowering sense. The body, the groove of the music is maintained; these are no rote workouts of technical prowess but songs, meant to stomp and sing along to. As a critic and a musician, it’s humbling to hear this kind of stuff, witnessing the clearly rich set of gifts and developed tastes of a set of players wielded so tastefully. There’s little doubt The Steoples could woodshed and shred with the best of them if they really set their minds to it. But instead, they keep it sophisticated, lying somewhere between quiet storm, gospel and deep funk depending on the call for the track. These are well-balanced elements, the gospel keeping things loose while the quiet storm keeps the prog-soul motifs flowing and the funk adds back a sense of, well, sex. This is music as satisfying for the body as it is for the mind, the kind of thing a group like Radiohead was able to nail on In Rainbows but, if we’re honest, struggled to evenly evoke on even other lauded portions of their rightly acclaimed catalog.
It becomes hard to discuss this record without surreptitiously talking about soul music and R&B in general, less because this simply is a record of those genres and more because it is so deftly syncretic. There is as much of the cutting edge and avant-gardist wing represented by the most outre moments of Frank Ocean as there are classicist touches evocative of Joao Gilberto and orchestral jazz records. The Steoples are happy to swim peaceably and without direction, as comfortably taking on synthesizers and electronic textures one moment before taking on horns in another. The only true mainstay is a warm tenor male voice, drifting up into breathy registers before dropping deep into resonant well, the gentle hops and curls of the middle voice. It’s sumptuous as its primacy, balancing thoughtfulness and bodiliness. As the title would imply, it hovers in the realm of yearning, both spiritual and material, not to mention romantic and sexual.
The songs live in the tension space before insight, luxuriating the way great R&B should (and the way the modern great practitioner The Weeknd taps so well into). The broader and jazzier chord voices serve a thematic purpose here; there is often little in the way of clear harmonic closure and stability, keeping us unseated and perpetually turning over the concerns in cycles. The unifying aspect is beauty. It is brave to make unabashedly beautiful things, to portray yearning with this amount of sincerity without cynicism. Wide Through the Eyes of No One is a virtuosic encyclopedia of R&B and soul methods unified in jazz and the progressive, laid in service to the evocative beauty of a yearning heart. It’s hard not to be moved by that.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.