It’s been the year of grand returns, of nerd-beloved touchstones coming back after long silences and cranking out the cohesive studio products that we’d learned to stop expecting from them long ago. Studio-rat geniuses who haven’t given us proper albums in seven or nine or 22 years, people who’d been occupying themselves with side projects or terrible movies or Primal Scream third-guitar duties are suddenly leaving their studio-ratholes and letting us hear the mysterious platters that they’d been working on this whole time. And even more amazingly, nobody’s given us a Chinese Democracy-level turd yet — not even close. It’s been working out. The two biggest-selling Billboard weeks of the year belong to Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk, and they earned those spots by putting together slick and luxurious pillow-disco masterworks. Meanwhile, My Bloody Valentine pulled off the impossible and released a palatable follow-up to Loveless, and the Knife released a sprawling, forbidding mass of corrosive noise-electro and post-gender agitprop and somehow managed not to chase off their entire audience. All of these artists are coasting at least a little bit, and nobody’s managing (or, arguably, even trying) to outdo their past glories, but all these people have done great work and reminded us why we cared in the first place. At this rate, Dr. Dre will, with no warning, suddenly release Detox in August, and it’ll actually be good. And Tomorrow’s Harvest, the first new Boards Of Canada album in almost a decade, fits in quite nicely with the rest of them.
Of course, with all the other people mentioned in that first paragraph, we actually had some idea what was going on in their lives; even the elusive Kevin Shields was contributing music to Lost In Translation or whatever. But ever since the Trans Canada Highway EP in 2006, Boards Of Canada have just been silent; it’s like they’ve ceased to exist. Their rebirth, with its hidden numbers and mysterious Record Store Day 12″ singles and desert listening parties, has been, if anything, a reminder of the way things used to be, back when Warp Records was the label of Aphex Twin and Autechre instead of Grizzly Bear. (It’s still the label of Aphex Twin and Autechre, but you know what I’m saying.) Within the so-called intelligent dance music ranks of the late-’90s, BoC were actually among the friendliest; their Music Has A Right To Children was shot through with a melancholic melodic longing that helped the album fit in nicely alongside, say, Air’s Virgin Suicides soundtrack. (I spent serious quality time with my dorm-room carpet and those two albums in the CD changer.) And as pretentious as the build-up to Tomorrow’s Harvest has been, it’s also served as a fun, nostalgic reminder of the old standard IDM operating procedure. As it happens, though, that’s been the only nostalgic thing about Tomorrow’s Harvest.
Last week, I took my family camping in the Virginia mountains, and, partly as a way to amp myself up for Tomorrow’s Harvest, threw on a playlist of old BoC tracks when I was on a solo firewood run. It was perfect. I’d forgotten how gorgeously warm and pastoral those old tracks could be — how perfectly they could blend in with your life when you’re, say, admiring shafts of sunlight coming through a tree-canopy. Boards Of Canada have always done tense and ominous from time to time — parts of Geogaddi would make a perfectly effective horror-movie score — but that sense of warm, gently awed calm has always been central to what they do. On Tomorrow’s Harvest, it’s all but gone; the new album would sound absolutely wrong on that firewood run. The basic ingredients of the BoC sound are the same: The aqueous boom-bap drums, the muffled layers of vintage-synth hum, the decayed and fucked-around pieces of human speech. But this time around, all those elements seem to be working to convince us that something is wrong.
Hawkeyed readers will notice that I’ve said almost nothing about the actual music on Tomorrow’s Harvest. But, I mean, have you ever tried to talk about the music that Boards Of Canada make? The structural decisions, the subtle production touches, the synth tones! It’s really hard! Boards Of Canada have always made music that goes straight to the subconscious, that evokes feelings more than thoughts. And on Tomorrow’s Harvest, the feeling in question seems to be a dim, wriggling, all-pervading anxiety. The song titles offer a few clues here, evoking an earth after some cataclysmic event: “Cold Earth,” “Reach For The Dead,” “Collapse,” “Sick Times,” “Sundown,” “Come To Dust,” “Palace Posy” (rearrange the letters to get “apocalypse”). And the apocalypse that they’re considering doesn’t seem to be the sudden nuclear-flash variety. Instead, it seems to be the slow drip of unsustainable models slowly ruining things for the future: Environmental apathy, decaying economies, invisible human-rights violations, all working together to make the planet a tougher and tougher place to live. Maybe that’s tomorrow’s harvest. I’m projecting here, of course, but that’s what Boards Of Canada music makes you do.
That general creeping unease comes from the way the usual elements they keep in play, the loops and keyboard-washes and fucked-to-pieces vocal samples, seem to be just slightly out of sync, the rhythms and circles never quite aligning the way they once did. The comforting thrum of the duo’s old music is gone, but it seems to be just out of reach. Occasionally, they’ll give a glimpse of that old beauty, as with the sad humming on “Cold Earth” or the soft krautrock twinkles on “New Seeds,” but the reassurance never lasts long. The music is a pretty as it’s ever been, but not it feels like something is off. If Boards Of Canada are trying to tell us something with this album, they’ve picked a pretty circuitous way of doing it. But as it is, they’ve made a really great soundtrack album for the moments of your day where you’re stressing about things like money or illness or difficult personal-life decisions. They’ve made a great uncomfortable-ambiance album, one that sticks with you even in the moments when you wish it wouldn’t.
Tomorrow’s Harvest is out now on Warp.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Deafheaven’s grand, majestic, crushing Sunbather.
• The Lonely Island’s guest-jammed post-SNL move The Wack Album.
• Gold Panda’s prettily psychedelic electronic LP Half Of Where You Live.
• Sonny & The Sunsets’ lo-fi psych-pop concept album Antenna To the Afterworld.
• Lust For Youth’s dark, blaring synth-punker Perfect View.
• Prodigy and Alchemist’s hardbitten collaborative LP Albert Einstein.
• Fat Tony’s smart, conversational Southern rap solo debut Smart Ass Black Boy.
• Wrekmeister Harmonies’ placid metal experiment You’ve Always Meant So Much To Me.
• Author & Punisher’s overwhelming noise attack Women & Children.
• Surfer Blood’s sophomore fuzz-pop album Pythons.
• Action Bronson & Harry Fraud’s epicurian boom-bap EP Saab Stories.