For a quarter of a century, the smoky baritone voice of singer-songwriter Stuart A. Staples has been definitive of the Nottingham-based chamber pop band Tindersticks, tracing through bittersweet stories of pain and romance over a lush, orchestral-infused backing. Over the years, Staples and Tindersticks have also been known in the cinematic realm, holding a long-running collaboration with French filmmaker Claire Denis, producing soundtracks for seven of her films to date. Arrhythmia, Staples’ first solo effort since Songs About Leaving (2006), is his first that doesn’t come off as an extension of his work with Tindersticks, but rather leans closer to the aforementioned soundtrack work – the kind of subtle, jazzy orchestrations that are sometimes so still that they retreat into silence.
Arrhythmia is really something of an album of two halves, with the second half consisting entirely of “Music for ‘A Year in Small Pictures’” – a piece lasting over half an hour. This was actually written by Staples as something of an accompaniment to his wife, artist Suzanne Osborne’s art series Skies, in which she created a small painting of the sky every day for a year between September 2010 and 2011. As Staples explains, “from these recordings, I chipped away at its form, guiding and editing. Each time there was an exhibition of the work there was a newly evolved version of the music to accompany it.” Incidentally, the paintings also grace the cover art of Tindersticks’ 2012 album The Something Rain, not to mention being featured in Clare Denis’ film Un beau soleil interieur. The piece itself is indeed very meditative and calming for its duration, with a rising and falling orchestral arrangement that subtly shifts throughout to reflect the changing tone of the skies in question – sometimes with sounds of thunder audible and sometimes dropping out almost entirely, though always remaining tranquil and emotionally ambiguous, like a shifting sonic painting. Even with a two-note bass pulse entering nearly halfway through, the piece remains generally formless and with a strong sense of closeness and intimacy – a prevailing component of the entire album. It features a sense of detail that will reward close and repeated listening, but can also work as background listening, as the best ambient music should do. The last minutes even feature a repeatedly strummed guitar chord that recalls the opening of Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way” (1969), whose sense of space was no doubt an inherited influence on this album. It carries across a stillness and calmness akin to a cloudy Sunday morning before anyone has risen – wide open spaces out of the window, flowers swaying in the quiet wind. The vivid calmness of the piece brings to mind the minimal ambient stillness of Oren Ambarchi’s 2004 album Grapes From the Estate, an album which structurally bears resemblance to this one also.
The album’s first half is relatively more present, though still very subdued and very much playing off of the quiet dynamic prevalent on the album. A sparse, lightly limping electronic percussion loop carries the first track “A New Real” along as Staples’ recognisable croon enters, rounded out by the steady bass pulse, with slits of light jutting out from the glimmering keys and percussive sound effects. It’s an emotionally ambiguous opening, as Staples sings, subdued, of some great longing to love, some kind of obsession – almost slightly desperate or even sinister, but always patient, with a great sense of anticipation. Suddenly, just over halfway through, the song fully blooms in a joyful burst of dewy keyboards and jangling bells. It may seem like a jarring shift, but it’s an effective one, acting as an emotional release. It’s the only time the album really builds towards such a sudden shift, though that isn’t to its detriment, as the album’s stillness more often than not works in its favour.
“Memories of Love” was the lead single from the album, accompanied by a Claire Denis video that makes for a live-action companion to the aforementioned Skies paintings. The piece slowly rises out of the early morning air into a new day, and seems to hang in that stillness, with the sun just about to rise and not a soul around. Staples sings in his higher register, with a great feeling of vulnerability and some deep sadness, over lightly brushed, barely discernible cymbals and spare guitar strums – combining to resemble parts of Talk Talk’s 1988 classic Spirit of Eden. Halfway through the melody drops out, leaving just the drums to hang there, before the piece is taken out with a new instrumental section, building a little more into the new morning with additional instrumentation and percussion. “Step Into The Grey” goes into a more bittersweet and grey mood. The opening percussion and keyboard chords resemble a more stripped-down and skeletal take on Tindersticks, with Staples singing audibly full of bittersweet regret. The theme seems to be the elusiveness of love, someone desperate to love again – a little violent and forceful with “I need you with your teeth, baby.” Another shift comes as the keyboards drop out and the drums begin to stumble with double bass riffs and dramatic, contorted strings. The colour seems to be taken out of the piece as the sour strings quickly swell, stepping into the grey indeed.
All in all, Arrhythmia comes across as a tricky album to really assign a particular rating to. At times an almost ambient effort, the album is often so still and calm that it can easily blend into the background. However, through the subtlety, there is still an amount of detail that makes the album a worthwhile listen and a curiosity even for Tindersticks fans, at times graced with a cinematic feel evoking scenes and feelings of nature and intimacy.