Art emerges from collaboration. The first violinist takes a quick breath and firmly nods her head, instantly communicating a musical gesture with the other players in her string quartet. The members of a band interact with one another on stage, realizing their composition in a live setting by simultaneously playing off each other and reacting to the audience’s response. Even a solitary genius has to commune with outside forces in order to create: a painter communicates with and responds to the fundamental qualities and limitations of the materials that he or she works with; similarly, a software-based producer adapts to the constraints and possibilities of the digital audio workstation that he or she uses. Thus, the artist must interact, must collaborate with other human beings — or, indeed, other non-human materials or processes — in order to create something new that exists outside of him- or herself.
In a recent interview, Darkside’s Dave Harrington described the band’s new album, Psychic, as such: “It’s really just the sound of me and Nico in a room together. The album is the sound of the two of us making this third thing together, so the sounds that are on it are the sounds we’re interested in.” Although all art might be said to arise from collaboration — whether literally or in a more abstract way — Psychic’s musical qualities seem exceptionally attuned to this concept. On song after song here, we can hear the members of Darkside — aforementioned guitarist Dave Harrington and producer Nicolas Jaar — playing off and responding to the unique musical intuitions of one another. In a way, this album doesn’t seem to be so much about the final, recorded product, but rather about the fleeting, minor joys that naturally emerge from the collaborative process itself.
Throughout the record, the duo approaches its compositions (especially the longer songs) in a fairly consistent manner: a musical idea will be presented — often one of Harrington’s distinctly Floydian guitar licks — which they will then develop by complicating the rhythm, harmony, and texture surrounding it, slowly introducing additional parts and instrumentation in a linear, organic way. Then at some point, everything inevitably locks into a tight, satisfying groove, which they ride out until it somehow dissolves. And then the process repeats. While Psychic sounds absolutely gorgeous — every element of the murky, sensual mix of electronic and analog instrumentation that this record delves into sounds crisp and clear — by the end of the album, the songs end up feeling structurally formulaic and aesthetically indistinct, everything blending together into a dense series of very similar grooves and riffs.
To be sure, there are songs and specific moments on the record that emerge from the tedium and proudly etch themselves into the listener’s memory. “Golden Arrow,” the album’s 11-minute opener, stands out, in part due to its marathonic length, but also because it sets the precedent for the slow-building compositional design that so much of this material employs. And the episodes that feature original vocal parts are also particularly salient — Jaar’s deep, affected croon on the comparatively straightforward “Paper Trails” ends up being strangely inviting rather than off-putting, while the too-short “Greek Light” explores some dissonant vocal loops to a fascinating result.
However, most of the record floats by in a euphonious if slightly unmemorable haze. As hinted at before, Psychic simply doesn’t leave a lasting memory when one considers the work as a whole. Rather, the moments that most directly manifest the collaborative core of the album — the blissful, wonderfully satisfying manner manner in which Harrington’s guitar locks in with the rhythm during “The Only Shrine I’ve Seen,” the way the pitch-shifted vocal samples in “Metatron” play off the delicate guitar harmonics — end up being the most affecting. In those instances, one can easily imagine Jaar and Harrington in a small room together, laying down the groove and nodding their heads along to the beat in recognition of the collaborative artistic synergy that they just stumbled upon. And, while the album is not without its faults, it’s hard not to find oneself nodding right along with them.