Dean Blunt has become increasingly reserved over the last few years when discussing his art with the press, but should it follow that mystery must now lie at the core of every project? Sometimes we’d like it to. That’s why it still feels as though I’ve been hunting for leads as opposed to reading about public reactions to his latest offering, but those flashes of curiosity might also have a lot to do with its sudden and unexpected emergence. Everything about Stone Island’s release breeches modern distribution conventions: there was no PR, no scheduled release date, and not a word from the artist or his label indicating that a fresh set of cuts were on the way. But why should there have been? When taking Hype Williams’ relatively short history into account, it’s more surprising that such conventional steps were taken when Blunt dropped his first solo full-length, The Redeemer back in May. But here we are. A rare interview that took place in Moscow, a show sponsored by The British Council, a follow-up interview for Афиша, and brand new album to go with it, all in the span of three weeks.
Blunt’s exclusivity with Russian press could easily be downplayed as an incentive to keep the rest of the world on their toes, even though previous Hype Williams interviews published in Russian have offered more about the artist’s identities than almost any other. Our addiction at TMT has been unrestrained since 2011, but we are not alone in the online goose chase, in panning the sand for another clue that might lead to more material. Over time, we’ve learned to lower expectations and enjoy each YouTube clip and SoundCloud file while they remain available, either as some rogue cog in a fantastical art partnership or as an idea unlikely to ever be expanded on. The only reason this works in Blunt’s favor is because the music he makes is simply fascinating, and Stone Island is no exception. That it comes shrouded in some bizarre story about being recorded in a Moscow hotel room doesn’t alter how extraordinary these songs are.
It’s hardly shocking to learn that the Google translation of Blunt’s most recent interviews from Russian to English offer very little insight into the album’s production: an obsession with an Alice In Chains set, a reluctance to speak about Inga Copeland or his music, an affinity for “Bullet” by The Misfits, and an indication that he might not be present at his Moscow gig. Indeed, the location appears to be irrelevant from the outset, but like Copeland, Blunt has quite a following in Russia. He’s also demonstrated an enthusiasm for travel while working on new productions, and the Strelka show provides justification for speaking to local media first — how important is language online anyway, when each and every sentence can be mercilessly decoded at the click of a button? Ironically, ease in accessing information and the ability to instantaneously decipher (then ultimately subvert) the results can be found at the heart of Stone Island; like Blunt’s earlier work, it builds upon heavily displaced sample material in order to encrypt personal sentiments using freely available online art.
An artistic restlessness continues to grow within Blunt’s output, and catching his audience unawares is part of the kick. In the lead-up to The Redeemer, a SoundCloud file of “Flaxen” was distributed as a taste of things to come. Discussion quickly shifted from the repercussions of 2012’s exquisite Black Is Beautiful to estimations about the next album’s content, for that introduction demonstrated a fresh draw on musical sabotage. Where The Narcissist II was a single-track mix that wallowed in cloudy muffle and violent dialogue, the latest approach felt uncharacteristically refined, an acute display of MIDI string programming and choral harmony. Blunt had drastically altered tack, and because The Redeemer then proved to have shed the gritty, lo-fi tech of previous projects, including Hype Williams (which experienced a lineup change only a matter of weeks ago), an essential ingredient was brought to the fore: the artist’s voice. Blunt has sung on a number of tracks in the past — he even lip-synced to the camera on one of his more recent uploads, “Felony” — but when his graceful and urgent purr came cradled in the trappings of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Daddy” or bound up in the excited percussion of Kate Bush’s “Sat In Your Lap,” it was framed in a new light, and for this reviewer, that emphasized one of the most seductive features in his latest bag of tricks.
Aesthetically, Stone Island continues where The Redeemer left off (minus any menacing guitar romp), but it also borrows heavily from the harp strings and harmony sections on “Flaxen,” “Y3,” and “The Pedigree.” The album is brilliant because it largely deviates from the thick and heady samples that Blunt has seemed so comfortable with in the past, and this expressive shift complements his vocal timbre incredibly well. “Shame on her/ She knows my name” he presses on “Two,” his voice counter-punching back and forth behind a GarageBand drum section; nothing implies that he is singing in earnest or that he is referring to anyone in particular, but a feeling of impassioned regret resonates within his somber tone. Even though the vocals are calmly spoken, they deal a rapid blow: “And nobody’s gonna catch you when you’ve fallen down/ And nobody’s gonna want you when I run you out of town,” he threatens on “Three.” It’s a stark caution that submerges into the harrowing space of his first mixtape, and yet, because of how wonderfully these songs have been arranged, emphasis is sure to be placed on the samples that play into such frank and baleful bruising.
Blunt here focuses more on the mood of his work as a whole than on the treatment of his samples. Where The Narcissist II was straight-up, down-and-out a rowdy lo-fi back-alley ruckus, Stone Island once again pilfers from a more refined palette. It’s tricky to talk about source material in terms of expectancy, but the most surprising choice is undoubtedly Pentangle’s “Light Flight.” Although it sounds at odds with anything Blunt has borrowed from before, it beautifully accompanies Joanne Robertson’s folk-infused “Heat,” a gracious acoustic number that comes veiled in its own little mystery: Blunt and Copeland’s World Music was said to be working with Robertson earlier this year, and “Heat” accompanied the announcement as an apparent celebration. The track was then removed from SoundCloud without warning only to appear on Stone Island a week later, but like everything else at the periphery of this record, Robertson’s contribution is what matters the most, and it suits the atmosphere perfectly. Then there’s Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring (Scenes of Pagan Russia in two parts): Spring Round Dances,” which is perhaps a nod to the supposed recording location; Blunt completely rearranges an original recording of the fourth movement with a bare-faced loop that skips over and over again across “Six.” It’s a terrific juxtaposition of high and low art, where on the flip-side, Blunt includes a sample from American neo-soul musician and Grammy award winner Gerald Maxwell. It counteracts any argument that trips Blunt up for arranging classical pieces; he picks and chooses from the infinite chasm of the web and finds songs that suit his mood, regardless of how they might have been heard before.
Clearly, then, Blunt is not interested in creating music that’s perceived less interesting than the concepts/gossip surrounding it. Hype Williams might have come close to that during their live shows, and Blunt has also cast doubt over attendees at his exhibitions, but with his music, he continues to release material that demolishes any preconceptions about his approach. As an artist, he’s keen to experiment with seditious tactics while moving further away from tried and tested rules of engagement — Blunt isn’t daft enough to suggest his work is wholly original, but in the Афиша interview, he talks about striving to try new things, as long as they aren’t plainly rehashing old tropes: why would you want to spend time with an imitation of some garage rock band from the 60s when you can have the real deal? “It’s been done before,” Blunt declares, “if I want to listen to garage rock, I’ll listen to The Sonics.”