It is hard to wash the stench of schmaltz off. William Orbit’s The Painter has its moments, certainly, little curlicues or tricks of sound design and production that perk up the ear, but the melodic and compositional sensibility lean unfortunately too close to a hybrid of bad Massive Attack pastiche combined with the uncanny sensibilities of mainstream pop electronica. This isn’t to say that mainstream electronic work can’t be great; Sylvan Esso, for instance, have been consistently strong, having delivered their strongest and most experimentally delightful record this year. But this particular blend finds a hard time being deeply satisfying, seeming gunshy toward committing either to the artfully deep or the readymade functionality of pure club music. There is an identity crisis at play on The Painter, feeling at times like Orbit isn’t sure whether he wants to explore the abstract and jazzlike limits of the melodic ideas present here, to create a dense and consuming groove or to be a purely melodic vocal-driven project. This seeming lack of a conceptual throughline leads to weaknesses large and small, eroding the record both from the outer edges of it as a complete work as well as microfractures within the songs, choices of production and juxtaposition that wind up confusing rather than widening the lens.
This is so keenly frustrating in part because almost every song has a performance or sonic idea that is compelling and worth saving. Beth Orton, for instance, appears in several places across this record and each time, her sensitivity to the material brings a keen human edge to otherwise deeply synthetic music. But her utilization feels uncapitalized by the production, which neither expands into rich and fibrous jazzlike humanity beneath her nor gives a satisfying sense of artificiality to challenge our standard perceptions of her as a perform. Instead, it feels, sadly, more like a standard pop electronica piece with an incredible vocalist on top. Similar missteps occur with the collaboration with performers like Hukwe Zawose and Lido Pimienta, who each provide compelling performances that wind up married to subpar production which shimmers with the gloss of a million-dollar job but without the character or soul needed to really drive those performances either into the beating heart of intimacy or the wide beaming lights of absolutist pop.
The Painter offer suffers from a confused aim, seeming unsure of what space or how much of it it wants to take up. The result is a record that seems frustratingly incapable of rising beyond background music, like it was born to be a soundtrack for a film or video game or TV show but not to demand attention drawn to itself. It’s not hard to imagine these pieces brought to life by some image-driven component. “Colours Colliding” for instance calls to mind a meditative walk in the snow, drifts swirling in the air and dropping to the ground, the crispness of icy air and the coziness of knitted wool wrapped around you in hands and scarves and gloves and sweaters. Each of these pieces feels tantalizingly close to something that could be powerful and some, like the aforementioned track, achieve it, despite minor grievances in somewhat cliched melodies or production movements. If the album were perhaps more committed to an ambient sensibility, moving more toward textural work rather than pop-aligned work, it could achieve a painterly palette; for a pop record, it lacks that definitive boldness or heart-bared sincerity that makes work in those fields work. It is capably produced, revealing Orbit’s mastery of the studio as an instrument. I just wish it had better (or more consistent) songs to back that up.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.