MusicWeekend

Solange, Captured Mid-Dream

Conceived as a musical map of Houston, Solange’s hometown, When I Get Home wanders from mood to mood, arrangement to arrangement, a soundscape as cityscape, where songs correspond to locations and melodies merge with memory.

Solange, <em>When I Get Home</em>
Solange, When I Get Home

The new Solange album hovers delicately, like a ghost floating through the streets of Houston. When I Get Home, out this month, refines musical ingredients derived from jazz and R&B into a wispy chill. Fragmented beyond a conventionally linear sequence, it assembles a large number of tiny sketches, textural shards, recordings that sound incomplete, as if captured mid-dream. The sum exceeds the parts: an airy, hushed, ineffably lovely sonic contraption.

Since Solange has been slowly progressing toward an album this atmospheric for what seems like most of her career, When I Get Home glows with a relieved confidence, a calm assurance. The album realizes musical ideas that sounded fussy when presented in more conventional contexts but, paradoxically, click into focus when allowed to drift.

After years of apparent limbo, Solange broke through critically and commercially with her third album, A Seat at the Table (2016), a collection of meditations on black female identity that gained resonance thanks to their release so close to the election. At the time, that album sounded etiolated, absorbed in fluttering ethereality. In its willowy string arrangements and shivering keyboards, in the way Solange overdubs her vocals into a breathy, polyphonic echo chamber, A Seat at the Table eyes the world with wary caution, with the kind of quietude that is a response to and defense against pain.

“Cranes in the Sky,” in which she flies away but can’t escape what’s bothering her, and “Where Do We Go,” which spirals around looking for a place to land, both capture a sense of being lost, but in terms that tie together personal disquiet and broader cultural displacement. As performed, though, much of the album fizzled; surely songs this anguished and incisive deserved crisper musical shapes.

The new album suggests that Solange partially agreed, and partially reached the opposite conclusion — surely atmosphere so exquisite didn’t need elaborate song structures and lyrical details mucking up the flow. In retrospect, A Seat at the Table sounds like a tentative step away from pop-R&B convention toward oceanic sound, but she’s caught between modes; the songs are diluted by reticence. When I Get Home has no songs, just sounds she thought went well together, and hence it achieves the fragile elegance A Seat at the Table hinted at. She’s wanted to make this album for a long time.

Solange, <em>A Seat at the Table</em>
Solange, A Seat at the Table

“I saw things I imagined,” she sings at the beginning, and that’s how the album works. Conceived as a musical map of Houston, Solange’s hometown, When I Get Home wanders from mood to mood, arrangement to arrangement, a soundscape as cityscape, where songs correspond to locations and melodies merge with memory. More than any sub-genre of R&B I’m aware of, the album shares a sensibility with meditative, pop-garbled works of electronic surrealism like Playboi Carti’s Die Lit or Haruru Inu Love Dog Tenshi’s Lost Lost Dust Dream (compare that album’s “Shindo” to Solange’s “Sound of Rain”), in which beats and hooks typically found in pop-conventional contexts are cut up into a hallucinatory reverie.

Carti himself contributes a guest verse on “Almeda”, chirping over whacked drum machines and dissonant jazz keyboards. “Black skin, black braids, black waves, black days,” chants Solange; it’s not a song so much as a list, but it’s direct, and the point is clear. The breezy cymbals and woody funk keyboards on “Down With the Clique” sway back and forth, like a pendulum in slow motion, as Solange gradually adds one vocal layer after another to build a humming communal space, overflowing with crosstalk. “We were down with ya,” she and countless other voices murmur to each other.

Throughout the album, she puts familiar musical devices to use in strange ways, treating the heavy basslines and synthesizer loops of trap functionalism like mood music. “Stay Flo” bounces over a glassy piano hook that grounds her swooping voice, while a sampled, lower voice occasionally mumbles “Hold up,” just barely audible beneath the beat; it’s like falling asleep with the radio on. The farting bass and spacey piano on “Way to the Show” gleam, transparently in the style of the late Bernie Worrell, but the song isn’t propulsive; it shivers.

If When I Get Home has a flaw, it’s a mildness at odds with Solange’s formal strategy. Although her sonic range has expanded, burbling with stranger noises and more dissonant juxtapositions, her preferred textures remain smooth, silken. The hooks are concrete and rarely blurry, but their cumulative effect is gentler than hearing any one song in isolation would suggest; rhythms that would ordinarily be played on metallic drum machines instead patter softly, and even the trap keyboards and funk guitars seem muted somehow. In its slew of references, its relentless genre-shuffling, its specific lyrical and musical allusions to black music history, the album interpolates shards of culture without necessarily producing something new — she has no aural signature, no recognizable Solange style beyond neosoul’s default harmonic palette, and when a song’s lyric isn’t simple and declarative it shrinks from view.

Ambient musicians have simulated physical environments through fragmented drift, but typically this project depends on the careful sequencing of a bunch of discrete miniatures. If particular instruments or tropes on When I Get Home represent particular elements of the city, they all get jumbled from song to song rather than presented in an order that could correspond to a linear path.

In theory, Solange aims to depict Houston as a whole — what it feels like to wander through the city, watch the reflections in the windows, get lost in the streetlights, hearing stray bits of conversation, engines revving, musicians in the street — and hence subvert conventional perceptions of space and time. When the music matches this mood, it’s dazed and marvelous, a sunburst. Sometimes it just sounds like the banal accretion of unrelated snippets, moving in place but going nowhere.

Given recent trends in R&B and electronic music toward ambience, Solange’s breakthrough in this current pop era is no surprise — her talent, which she refined for years, is for soundscape. To make ostensibly commercial music with no distinct pop structure isn’t that strange. She just takes the tendency to its logical extreme. She’s trying to capture abstract moods and how she feels them — when they materialize, when they dissipate, when they recede, hypnotically, into the horizon.

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