Album Review: Baths – Obsidian

When I was writing this review I felt it would be prudent to revisit Baths’ debut album Cerulean, and his lesser known sophomore album Pop Music/False B-Sides. This reason for this is that Will Wiesenfield, the 24 year old Californian behind the pseudonym, has stated in several interviews that Obsidian is the darkly introspective album he’s been meaning to make from the start- before Cerulean lit up our summers three years ago. Obsidian is no departure from the sound we’re used to hearing from Baths, but there are discernible and engaging differences which make it feel like an ambitious new step in his approach to making music.

Like all of Baths’ work Obsidian is artfully and beautifully cacophonous. The main difference between this and Baths’ other albums is that the link between the work and the artist is much, much stronger. Behind each note and lyric is a thought, experience or emotion and Baths’ message, despite modifications to the vocals which can make the words a little unintelligible at times, is clear and strident. Perhaps the clearest statement made regards the way in which many people conceive of Baths’ artist persona. Wiesenfield often refers to his work as Baths as a pop music, and despairs of being referred to as a DJ. His increased personal presence on Obsidian certainly places him within the realm of the musician or artist as opposed to that of the producer or DJ.

On Cerulean it was easy to allow the music to wash over you, without feeling the need to decipher the lyrics to the tracks. Obsidian’s lyrics are important and as such more audible. Their subject matter ranges from the everyday emotional anguish of lust and interpersonal relationships on “No Eyes” to deeper reflections about the the sorry state of human civilisation and its effect on the earth on “Earth Death”. The lyrical standout of the album is its fifth track, ‘Incompatible’, which speaks of a botched modern romance. Great lyrics follow the rhythms and happenings of everyday life, and the emotions at play in this track are heartbreakingly familiar.

This is not to say that Obsidian is no fun at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard the second track ‘Miasma Sky’, which sees Baths toy with sounds we’re most used to hearing in exuberant and carefree commercial dance music, at house parties and in DJ sets. Similarly ‘Phaedra’ wouldn’t be too out of place on an edgy mainstream radio station, even though it carries the tempo, structure and madcap bridges of experimental electronica. On these tracks Baths occupies an enviable position between pop, which he understands in the most educated of ways, and madcap experimental electronica.

The most experimental tracks on the album are probably ‘No Past Lives’, which blends a playful piano motif with dark, heavy, distorted sounds and a slightly delayed guitar riff accompanied by longing, yet mournful vocals, and the opener ‘Ironworks’ which is filled to the brim with an endearing melancholia.

I enjoyed Obsidian. I think it’s an interesting step in a new direction. Toro Y Moi is perhaps the only comparable artist, although it might be easy to compare Wiesenfield’s vocals to those of Passion Pit and his penchant for the melancholic absurd to Of Montreal. I will, however, note a few negative points. I appreciate Baths’ desire to tackle the darker parts of life – especially considering his own recent brush with mortality – but at times this blustering intention to create a ‘dark’ record comes across a little trite. There is some positivity, some hedonism, in Obsidian but I feel that a more balanced approach to what makes Baths’ sound would have evened out the album a little. I’m not sure how well it will last with me as a full album, but certain tracks will definitely make it onto my playlists and into my ears on a regular basis.

Obsidian is sort of like step two in the formation of Baths’ sound. As far as second albums go it’s a very strong release and definitely deserving of everyone’s attention. I’m excited to see where Wiesenfield takes it from here – he’s certainly proved that he’s more than just a DJ.