It’s unlikely you will read a review of Airhead’s For Years that does not devote at least some space to James Blake. Because behind Airhead is Rob McAndrews, a school-days friend of Blake’s and the guitarist in his touring band. The two jointly released the Pembroke single in early 2010; McAndrews earned a co-writing credit on “Lindisfarne,” a highlight from Blake’s self-titled debut; and McAndrews collaborated with Blake and Brian Eno on “Digital Lion” from this year’s Overgrown. In short, Blake and McAndrews have been playing together and swapping musical ideas since well before the start of Blake’s impressive ascent.
The two young Londoners’ outputs have been markedly different since Pembroke dropped more than three years ago. While Blake has been prodigious and has bloomed from his “post-dubstep” roots into an idiosyncratic singer-songwriter and verified star, Airhead’s production has been more tentative: McAndrews has released just three singles between Pembroke and now, two of which are reprised here on For Years. It would be easy, then, to cast McAndrews as the Salieri to Blake’s Mozart (minus the Machiavellian intentions, of course), laboring in the shadows of his preternaturally gifted friend. But that wouldn’t be quite fair — different people work at different speeds, after all, and there can be virtue in a soft sell. The title of Airhead’s debut is appealingly modest — self-deprecating, even. As in: “I’ve been working on this record for years,” or: “It’s taken me way too long to release this thing.” Based on the (admittedly scant) evidence of one interview, however, McAndrews seems like a guy comfortable with his own pace. As well he should be — at only 24, he has released a smart and eclectic debut.
Eclecticism is a key word here. In a recent review of Mount Kimbie’s Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, Graham Major wrote that Kimbie had progressed from “post-dubstep” to “post-genre” — which is not a bad way to also describe For Years. Airhead’s full-length features chilled post-rock guitars, deep wobbling bass, gently thrummed folky acoustics, fetching vocal melodies, and moments of ambient drift. For category’s sake, however, we can say that Airhead works in roughly three modes: first, there are songs of beautiful electro-acoustic pop, primarily about melody; second, there are tracks of obtuse, driving dance music dominated by rhythm and bass; and third, there are ambient constructions focused above all on texture and sound.
For my money, For Years is at its best when Airhead is working in the first of these modes, the more melodic one. Take the standout track “Autumn” as an example: the song opens with a delicately plucked acoustic guitar and a beautiful, icy female vocal: “There’s a slight possibility that I’m not who I want to be/ And I lost it all.” A slow, almost martial beat paces the song, as striking shards of processed vocals and distant field recordings flit around the edges. The effect is melancholy and lovely. Album opener “Wait” is another prime highlight in mode number one. Percussive clacks, more field recordings, and clipped and processed vocal samples (of Yeah Yeah Yeahs front woman Karen O) open the song hesitantly until a strummed acoustic guitar brings structure. From there, “Wait” deliberately builds and dissolves, providing the most epic moment on For Years near the track’s end.
“Milkola Bottle” and “Pyramid Lake” are the strongest illustrations of rhythmic mode number two. These tracks are bass-heavy and repetitive, with dark fluttering textures and uneasy melodies that nonetheless wiggle their way into your head. These songs walk the thin line between alienating and accessible, between stripped down and substantive. While the hard-hitting “Pyramid Lake” delivers the album’s most compulsively danceable stretch, the paranoia-inducing “Milkola’s” genuinely pretty middle section offers a brief moment of respite.
The cerebral ambient track “Masami,” exemplary of the third mode, centers on a repeated pattern of ascending guitar harmonics. Gentle electronics and amorphous vocals provide a cloudy, amelodic bed, and the only hint of percussion comes from what sounds like it could be a recording made at an indoor tennis court (the jury is still out). Album closer (and James Blake collaboration) “Knives” also works in this third ambient mode, but where “Masami” is airily calm, “Knives” inspires a low-pitched but definite sense of dread. The song’s heavily echoed hand claps threaten, and its circuitous melody gives it a forsaken, mechanical feel, ending the record on an uncertain, even vexing note.
This kind of eclecticism or “post-genreism” is both a strength and a weakness. In its favor, it keeps For Years fresh: there are many things to hear on this album, and it rewards multiple listens. Depending on your mood, some songs and elements might stand out one day, while others may stand out the next. On the other hand, listen to “Autumn” and “Milkola Bottle” consecutively and it can be difficult to hear much of a connection. There are commonalities across all of these songs, of course — for example, McAndrews has a subtle, characteristic way with vocal samples that is present from front to back — but For Years can feel a bit like a collection of discrete singles recorded over a long period and not originally intended to be heard as a set. (Which, to be fair, it kind of is — “Wait” has apparently existed in finished form since as early as 2009.)
A final comparison to James Blake might be instructive here. On Overgrown, Blake covered a range of material and collaborated with distinct personalities, but because of his own strong identity as both songwriter and singer, all the music on Overgrown sounds like James Blake (even when it also sounds like RZA). Airhead isn’t quite there yet; McAndrews’ musical identity is still a work in progress to my ears. But as we can perhaps take his record’s title to ultimately imply, he isn’t in any big hurry.