Jamie Lidell: “Compass”

Until now, nearly every album Jamie Lidell made may as well have been dubbed, well, Another Side of Jamie Lidell; with Compass, he’s finally made a work that’s oriented toward every component of his personality, all at the same time. Lidell the electronic maverick, maestro of glitches and freaky studiocraft, meets Lidell the blue-eyed soul master, and the line between his production work and his persona as a powerhouse crooner in the classic vein isn’t blurred so much as ignored altogether: An album like Multiply might suggest the sure hand of an electronic whizkid, and Jim that of a singer who learned his instrument from copping the soul masters of old, but Compass feels like his true soul opus– the work not of a persona but a human being, one whose heart lies both on his sleeve and in his studio.

Calling it a soul album might be a bit misleading, though, if only because it’s such a different beast from Jim, which was a fine album even if it was a bit self-conscious in aping a vintage sound and establishing Lidell as a much warmer performer than his earliest production work may have suggested. There’s nothing retro about Compass, which doesn’t resemble any old-school soul performers so much as it suggests a modern-day Prince record for the hipster set– an album of loose electricity that’s bound together by the sheer forward momentum of Lidell’s imagination and his dedication to his craft, an album where crunching rockers collide with slow jams, desert folk ballads with Revolution-styled funk. What makes it work is how it appeals to both sides of Lidell’s muse in equal measure; much of its joy comes from the small, simple pleasures of his studiocraft– and indeed, it’s as great a sonic curiosity as just about anything in indie rock right now– but its heart comes from Lidell’s own, which is poured out here into his most direct, personal songwriting yet.

And so Compass becomes something rather odd and wonderful indeed– a heart-on-sleeve confessional record that keeps raw emotion at the fore but also has its eye on creative mischief and play, which keeps it from becoming wearisome or self-serious. It’s an unlikely marriage that Lidell establishes in the first song; “Completely Exposed” is a soul belter that takes place at a pivotal moment in a relationship, with the singer confessing that a lover has left his true self “completely exposed.” It’s a sort of manifesto for the album itself– Lidell does indeed leave himself emotionally exposed here– but the earnestness of the lyric is offset by the playfulness of the arrangement, which clatters around with his typical arsenal of studio effects and a wickedly warped fuzz bass, as tangible a delight as anything on the album.

And for the rest of the album, Lidell has it both ways, balancing his newfound introspection with his knack for experimentation; the result is a magical mess of an album, brimming with energy and spunk. And talk about showing us a few more sides of Jamie Lidell! Standout track “I Wanna Be Your Telephone” reveals a songwriter who learned a thing of two from Prince’s playbook of delightfully over-the-top sexual innuendo, and who knows that personal songwriting doesn’t have to be devoid of humor. “Your Sweet Boom” provides some idea of what a traditional R&B album would sound like if it was recorded by Tom Waits, while “She Needs Me” works as a straightforwardly romantic slow jam without losing that twinkle of play in the arrangement. “Big Drift” sees the scale tipping toward out and out studio tinkering, but “Compass” is a mesmerizing, shape-shifting folk song that stands as Lidell’s finest moment yet.

Oh, and by the way: As anyone who paid attention to the album’s pre-release publicity campaign already knows, Lidell is joined in the studio by the likes of Feist, Beck, and members of Grizzly Bear and Wilco. Their presence is basically impossible to discern here, but that’s not a complaint: That they blend in to the joyful ruckus on display here simply shows how wildly energetic the creative spirit is here, and that they don’t steal the spotlight from Lidell reaffirms that this is indeed his album– an exploration not just of his fascinations and his peculiar gifts, but a rather beguiling and completely enjoyable look into his heart and soul, as well.

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