Glorious, albeit predictably so, Similes is a delight to be distracted by.
Mike Diver 2010-02-16
Ambient music suffered terribly at the hands of a late-90s boom in chill-out compilations, ostensibly assembled to bring one down after a night of hackneyed gesticulating to the sounds of the Gallaghers and their laddish ilk. Bands you knew, remixes you didn’t, but the end products always much of a muchness: slower, sadder, certain to expose the (slightly) softer side of any lout.
But done properly, ambient music truly transcends mood – it does not accompany, nor influence it, but rise above circumstance and environment to enlighten and, ultimately, enthral. The arrangements trickle out like the thinnest cut that won’t stop bleeding, but there’s always direction and purpose. Eno, at his best, always had a below-the-surface narrative; his sweeping drones were window dressing for backdrops of great intent, of solid focus and fearsome ambition – a maverick rarely meanders. And Eluvium, aka Portland, Oregon’s Matthew Cooper, plies similarly affecting but pertinently purposeful fare. Drift away you can, but only where Cooper directs you.
Similes is his fifth album – his fourth, 2007’s Copia, took him from underground attraction to an act with cross-Atlantic appeal, reviews on both sides of the divide reading like assemblages of purple-prose plaudits (albeit largely confined to the geographically unrestricted ‘net) rather than properly balanced assessments of an artist’s latest work. But that’s what quality ambient music can do to the listener: wrap them up inside it, protect them from harm, and force their forgetting of pesky prior engagements.
This set isn’t without relative fault. It plays things safe, generically speaking, too often to truly shine as a canon classic. Beautiful though Bending Dream and In Culmination are, they’re nothing fans of this style won’t have heard several times before. But Similes is blessed with moments, with movements, of impossibly diaphanous, distinctly delicate elegance. Cooper’s occasional vocals are part-Stuart Staples, part-Matt Berninger, imperfect yet all the more engaging for their roughness. On the opening brace of Leaves Eclipse the Light and The Motion Makes Me Last, the combination of soft, whispered words and the gently billowing music around them is wholly enveloping. But it’s not float-away, background material; these songs poke and prod while clasping you close, the embrace warm but never completely comfortable.
This collection’s title rather anticipates, and in doing so averts, any clichéd metaphorical climax, so forgive the curt conclusion: glorious, albeit predictably so, Similes is a delight to be distracted by.