The Present Lover
inn-turned-Berliner Vladislav Delay has wrought a captivating body of work from deceptive modesty, the sort of understatement that masks innumerable complexities beneath muted exteriors. From the undulating dub excursions he crafts under his own name to his 4/4 techno snaps as Uusitalo, Delay works up teeming microcosms from coarse materials, creating vast and shifting interiors from decayed echoes and the cracking of strained processors. His music teases with miniature tugs and well-deployed repetition – his penchant for teasing latent hooks and gradual evolutions that trace lines around form where others might explicate it. On 2000’s Vocalcity, a rapturous collection of three EPs crafted under his Luomo guise, Delay delivered a pared-down masterpiece of soulful subtlety that teased the high-gloss garb of vocal house into a sexy skitter of glitchcraft and hazy echo. Despite its assured flair and roots in Delay’s familiar sound palette, it retains the investigative, experimental spirit of an outsider’s perspective, at once deeply committed to the conventions of house and subversive of them.
Though Delay still professes his outsider status, the scrubbed sheen that marks The Present Lover – Luomo’s proper follow-up after a torturous two-and-a-half years – is liable to rattle listeners expecting a return to the ethereal dancefloors of Vocalcity . The retooled Luomo shirks its predecessor’s wide-open spaces and slow-pooling hooks for something entirely more immediate, less a murky gathering place for house’s ghost than a glossed surface coolly seared by low-hanging fluorescent lights. Delay still deals from his storehouse of cracked edit points and quirky delays, but here they are more polished than ever – his errors snap and spurt where they once seeped. His sophomore effort infuses the preceding strands of dubby, minimal house with a rich vein of sophisticated pop. Whereas Vocalcity whittled the vocals of house down to filtered rasps coiled into sensuously ambiguous ciphers, The Present Lover presses them to the forefront to simultaneously polarizing and mesmeric effect – flirting with the trappings of disco excess, seducing house’s most unabashed populist tendencies. A cursory scan suggests that Delay’s trademark introversion has retreated and left in its wake a curious obsession with opulence and exteriors, the titular tease of “presence” made explicit with all its implied decadence and invitation.
Like his previous works, however, neither the surfaces nor interiors are all they seem. While there is an initial temptation to chalk up its Gap-ad gloss to tactless genre hijacking or irony, it’s an assertion quickly defused by the dual threads of ecstatic earnestness and probing critique that span the album’s stellar seventy minutes. The opening strains of “Visitor” subtly encapsulate both paths, its gauzy synths and erratic bass pops wrapping around breathy female vocals that splinter into seemingly endless space or implode into spiny clusters. His processed embellishments are more than the requisite signifiers of his glitched background; instead, they insert a rich and darkly romantic undercurrent of doubt and intrigue into the superficially confident stream. The feminine whisper of the already-cryptic “I doubt / you want to make me burn” fractures under Delay’s effects into the existential refrain ”I doubt,” recasting the universality of house diva utterance into something masking and nervy. “So You” charts a similar course atop a tide of off-beat hi-hats and rubber band bass that propels a stream of warm dub echo as the sole refrain – “Do I want too much / All I give to you ain’t enough / I ain’t got anything else I can give to you” – folds under increasingly irregular treatments. “Cold Lately” performs an inverse feat by building momentum from a procession of clipped vocal fragments and atomized bass that split and suspend the assuredness of the 4/4 pulse into tense or poignant pauses in sympathy with its haunted vocals. Even in his most skittish DSP escapades, Delay keeps his skittish interjections mounted atop taut and confident rhythms and woofer-clapping bass – an embrace of dancefloor escapism, but it’s a dancefloor whose glossed finish covers cracks in the concrete below.
The Present Lover is at its most successful when Delay exercises his most synthetic impulses, blurring the line between deconstruction and homage to create something that feels distinctly like a new extension of the house lineage. The title track bounces a sturdy lockstep and loose, squelchy bass through a haze of distant choral synth as vocal snippets flitter between channels, snapping and reframing with breathless grace. As on Vocalcity , the voice is less a centerpiece than a mosaic of fragments rearranged and reassembled through repetition and accumulated errors, but it’s elevation in Delay’s musical hierarchy foregrounds the fault lines against a more assured backdrop. On album highlight “Body Speaking,” the effect is at once captivating and disorienting as the most overt reference to sensory confusion (“Can you feel my body speaking”) is tugged into hypnotic circles and sputters in elegant counterpoint with a bubbling lava bass hook. “What Good” works to similar effect, withholding its floors-rattling hook for what feels like an aching eternity while Delay snips its introductory pleas into increasingly desperate blips before unleashing a euphoric tide of anthemic choruses and anchored kick drum thump. Even at his most straightforward – the guitar-led rework of Vocalcity’s “Tessio,” the straight-up instrumental bump of “Could Be Like This” – Delay balances his newfound confidence with nervy edits and spontaneous spurs of granulated squelch and degraded reverb without declining into the clichés of polished house or glitch-for-glitch’s-sake IDM.
As the final vocal hook of “Shelter” detaches from its bass foundations and ascends into infinite reverb, there’s something that suggests that Delay has refined the core elements of both classic house and its minimal reincarnations and wandered into something newer and bolder. The Present Lover is neither crass genre exercise nor blind tribute but something altogether more imaginative and strange – a rock-solid piece assembled from cracked components, a universal call drafted from so many levels of disrupted communication. It’s simultaneously accessible and deeply mysterious, a set of slinky exteriors wrapped around a spiky and desperate center as nervously detached as the album cover model’s emptily lustful gaze. What Delay’s second house outing loses in modesty it makes up for with a new brand of depth and complexity built from upturned expectation and a ready embrace of house’s many contradictory impulses. Whether a brilliant revision of what has come before or a template for things to come, The Present Lover is, in the immediate and sensual now, as taut and sexy as a black dress and as tantalizing as a half-heard whisper on the dancefloor – immediate, intriguing, essential.
Reviewed by: Joe Panzner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-24