On his striking new LP, the pop-ambient composer Matthew Cooper, aka Eluvium, marshals his sound into sweeping maximalist splendor.
Matthew Cooper is one of our definitive contemporary pop-ambient artists, and he never goes too long without issuing Eluvium music in some fashion. He tends to release an LP about every three years, as though his creativity runs on the same long natural cycles that inform his songs. Though his albums blend into a timeless stasis in memory, going back over his discography—without even getting into collaborations with the likes of Explosions in the Sky’s Mark T. Smith—reveals a process of deliberate change, and then assimilating the changes back into the whole.
Cooper began by coaxing drones from guitars in the manner of Stars of the Lid and playing misty-eyed piano études. He then came into his own on 2007’s polyglot Copia, where added strings and winds glowed from within. The 2010 Similes LP made room for (and was diluted by) Cooper’s wan vocals. But he corrected course on 2013’s Nightmare Ending, where he fell silent again, ginning up dark clouds of distortion for a dense, nocturnal experience.
False Readings On is a logical follow-up, marshaling Eluvium’s arsenal into sweeping maximalist splendor. And perhaps it’s that sense of a logical conclusion that makes it sometimes feel more impressive than genuinely transporting. To be sure, Cooper is operating with persuasive confidence. With hardly a shadow to be found, the music is bright, loud, and physical. The stated theme is “cognitive dissonance in modern society.” One often scoffs at ambient artists who put too fine a point on the heady themes of their sparse chord changes, but you can actually hear how the concept structures the compositions, as drastically different speeds and timbres play against one another, unleashing turbulent energies.
That’s clearest in “Fugue State,” where nervy tootles that sound ripped from the madder regions of Philip Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts are held in check by a grand, slow harmonic apparatus. The funnels of distortion from Nightmare Ending are back, all but blotting out the inner dynamics of “Washer Logistics.” There are glorious organ chords, like the wind-beaten surface of sun-slicked water. Screaming quasi-operatic vocals telegraph some afterlife feeling beyond pleasure and distress; they do the orchestral heavy-lifting. Lustrous acoustic guitar strums and pianos glint here and there. And it’s all pillowed in the softest harmonies, shot through with the long revolutions of simple intervals in the bass or a recessive synth tone.
Each track is either very short or very long. The long ones build and break with magisterial resolve, sometimes to a fault: “Beyond the Moon for Someone in Reverse” and “Rorschach Pavan,” though very different in tone, have almost identical arcs. The album’s thick relentlessness flatters the soft space of “Movie Night Revisited,” where acoustic swells evoke Arvo Pärt by way of the Caretaker—sacred music gone benignly mad. The Messiaen-like wind line that enters in the middle is a welcome surprise on an album where tracks are more likely to gather and repeat without changing direction.
It’s a reminder of the more reticent Eluvium of Copia, still his best album. For the most part, those elegant, eloquent miniatures are gone. Instead, we must be drenched in distortion, buffeted by mezzo-soprano gales, swallowed by keyboard chords, drowned in drones. The effect is certainly striking. Album closer “Posturing Through Metaphysical Collapse” accounts for a quarter of the album’s length, and luckily, it’s a keeper, drawing all the album’s motifs into a climactic tour de force. And yet the sense persists that the more Eluvium piles on, the less unique he sounds. False Readings On is awesome while it’s playing, and when it stops, it’s gone. But the small, chiming whorls of “Radio Ballet,” you won't soon forget.