So much for the afterglow. Funk-soul white boy Jamie Lidell's third super-solid album for Warp, that beloved outpost of weirdballs electronics, demonstrates that the easily digestible Sunday-morning soul he concocted for 2008's criminally underappreciated Jim was in fact just a detour from his more traditionally raucous soul explosions. Despite collaborations with some quite mainstream folk (Beck co-wrote and co-produced several songs, Feist drops in for some guest vocals, and labelmate Christ Taylor of Grizzly Bear pitches in), Compass is Lidell's most confidently out-there solo collection, a bracingly skronky, schizophrenic mess of a record that ultimately coheres into something much more than the sum of its parts.
Compass opens in full mad-scientist mode: "Completely Exposed" finds Lidell crooning over a beatbox for 30 seconds before toppling headlong down the rabbit hole. Glancing guitar samples! Snatches of electro! Harp glissandos! Fuck you, respectful classicism. The track sounds like what you would get if you asked Organized Noize to produce lite-radio R&B. It's very representative, inasmuch as the wide-ranging sound of Compass can be summarized.
"Your Sweet Boom" clatters along on ramshackle drums live from the inside of a washing machine while Lidell fights to be heard through a scrim of filters. And then: curveball! The sweet-eyed low-key funk of "She Needs Me" would have fit perfectly on Jim. Disorienting!
Lidell's lyrical approach has a similarly skeptical attitude toward stability. Stone-cold soul murder "The Ring" depicts a jilted lover searching frantically for the wedding ring his lady tossed on the beach. "She was just a dream," Lidell yelps, "and he was just a dreamer." It's a common sentiment here: "Completely Exposed" and several other stompers are set in the aftermath of a relationship. But the album's gorgeous ballads are quite a bit more optimistic. "Compass" is one of Lidell's very best compositions. Left untreated, his vocals lay bare the raw emotion of the lyric: "Now I know the only compass that I need is the one that leads back to you," he confesses, and the track unfurls into a majestic symphonic Ennio Morricone vista. "You See My Light" is just as direct, a warm wash of nearly gospel sentiment that evokes the experience of eavesdropping on something very private.
Make no mistake: This is a difficult record. The constant genre hopping and ADD production approach can make listening a bit exhausting, and the album only really starts to feel like a coherent sequence of material after several spins. Compass won't bring Lidell the crossover success he richly deserves, but it is an outstanding document of a restless artist's quest to reinvent his chosen medium. Running in place is for suckers anyway.