“I don’t want to be closed,” Jamie Lidell sings at the beginning of Compass, “But opening up has left me completely exposed.” Then things go haywire. His voice is crystalline—light, sharp and precise—as the music opens up into seismic bass throbs, peals of distortion, lazer blasts, and steam-engine human beat-boxing. The song, “Completely Exposed,” plays at the actual mechanics of vulnerability—the tug between the proposed clarity of honest expression and all of its messed-up, uncontrollable bi-products. In the lyrics, Lidell stares at his own reflection as the music explodes. It’s fitting, then, that Compass is immediately rawer than either of Lidell’s two prior albums. It’s his messiest, most personal work yet—one he’s been building toward for years.
With his 2005 breakthrough, Multiply, Jamie Lidell was an anomaly on the Warp Records roster: a knob-twiddler using his laptop wizardry to create the best blue-eyed soul album since the Hall & Oates era. The follow-up, 2008’s Jim, dove head-long into accessibility. Lidell overtly choose Jackie Wilson and Barry Gordy as his muses, and relegated his Aphex Twiniest impulses to the deep background. Those albums each contained a good number of killer tracks (Multiply’s title track and Matthew Herbert-produced “Music Will Not Last;” Jim’s opener, “Another Day,” and closer, “Rope of Sand”), but, as units, they came up short. Multiply was a little too high-concept. Sure, it offered a heady mix of fashionable electronica and unfashionable soul, but the two mostly stayed in their own corners, rarely playing together. Jim, on the other hand, lacked the experimental momentum of its predecessor, branding Lidell with the worst adjective a British soul singer could acquire: Vanilla.
But Compass makes good on the promise of experimental, laptop soul. If anything, it charges too far in both directions, resulting in a difficult album that rarely makes concessions to accessibility. Jamie Lidell’s voice has developed into an incredible instrument—vibrant, expressive and versatile—but here he’s also unafraid to sing beneath his abilities. On “It’s a Kiss,” for example, he starts out singing too low for his range, so you can hear his voice scrape against the back of his throat. “Your Sweet Boom” rinses his voice through an effect that makes Lidell croak and mumble. On “Big Drift,” he channels Chris Cornell. Throughout the album, he forgoes the easy pleasures of oldies-radio R&B in favor of minor keys and delayed gratification. He uses incredible vocal control to brutally attack delicate melodies, like twisting metal around string.
With Lidell taking his cues from buddy and sometime co-producer, Beck, the music is often a ramshackle progression of sound effects, studio trickery, and sounds that shouldn’t work. Things often go off the rails, as on “Telephone,” when Lidell imitates the beepboopboopboopbeeping of a cellular before launching into a too-precious metaphor about wanting to be your, wait for it, telephone. But even the album's missteps add to the overall effect—even when it fails, Compass is never less than ambitious and unclassifiable. Lidell spent two albums mucking around with Motown versions of love and self-discovery, which can be appropriately brutal, but are always dressed impeccably. On Compass, he discovers the relentless, noisy, unceasingly weird, minor key, bad joke telling, don’t look at me, goddamnit don’t look at me, oh no why aren’t you looking at me, can’t catch my breath, what the fuck it feels like a bomb just went off in my sternum after I ate fried chicken, truth of vulnerability. He sounds ugly and open. In order to be completely exposed, you’ve got to be willing to get a little freaky.
-Marty Brown, 2010