In the closing minutes of last year’s dragging, drifting The Narcissist II mini-album, Dean Blunt’s narcotized R&B lothario hits the ceiling of his own nihilism and narrowly avoids free-fall by stalking and whining his way into a bona fide pop hit, restoring his confidence with an immediate rush of affirmation (and probably cocaine) that, oddly enough, parallels the real-world response to Blunt’s music. The Redeemer, then, with its veneer of newfound professionalism, would suggest a continuation and expansion of that linked narrative — the grounded follow-up to an overhyped mixtape, with all the inner and outer signifiers of career maturation on display: high-gloss production, broad palette of sound, “real musicianship,” single premiere on Pitchfork, tastefully plasticized/embossed CD/LP in wide release. The abundance of references to religion — “Demon,” “Jericho,” “Seven Seals,” an emoji-fied representation of Dürer’s famous praying hands sketch — intensify this atmosphere of cleaned-up piety, as if the artist (being a true narcissist) read his own reviews and gleaned that he might need some serious outside help.
Of course, you’d have to be pretty thick to take Blunt at face value by now; his seeming embodiment and parody of celebrity worship has been a losing game for anyone trying to tidily summarize his persona, let alone his work. But The Redeemer does come across as something closer to honesty and warmth than anything we’ve previously heard or seen from Blunt, and where that first seems possible is (somewhat paradoxically) in the endless undermining, reframing, and rug-pulling of his own symbolic narrative. Billed as a start-to-finish relationship study, complete with a romantic, string-saturated prelude and dramatic solo piano closer, the actual story remains frustratingly out of focus, eluding interrogation with its strange syntax, genre meldings, and distinct lack of movement despite a dizzying back-and-forth emotional pull. The periodic voicemails, a potentially useful shortcut to clear exposition, are difficult to make out and proceed without much progression, as if the same vague sentiment is gradually decaying with repetition. If a “plot” exists, it adheres to one of Ben Marcus’s preferred definitions: “small piece of ground,” “setting,” “the space in which a story occurs.” The narrative is largely felt as a thematic trajectory, a cyclical journey from the first spark of love, to its erosion into parody, to its sudden renewal as understood through a glass darkly.
Because The Redeemer is music, not an audiobook or radio play, the relationship between the artist’s inner, often seedy motivations and the outer, concrete aesthetic results is even harder to grasp, and Blunt is constantly playing with context to deny the listener a grounded perspective, sounding heartfelt on one listen and coming across deeply cynical on the next. Album opener “I Run New York,” an auspiciously lavish orchestral miniature that gives off an acceptable, recognizable scent of swag mixed with luxury, crumbles after a little online research reveals the song to be lifted entirely from K-Ci & JoJo. Everything after this “betrayal” sounds like it might secretly be a sample, from the pounding backing drums of “Demon” to the delicately fingerpicked folk of “Imperial Gold.” Even the parts clearly being “played” feel like samples being triggered by keyboard, as in the clipped ends of “Flaxen’s” strings and its synth vocals seeming to mouth the words “synth” and “sing” — as if the sonics were signifying themselves, their intent, and pointing in another transient direction within the song’s context. Anything remotely lo-fi is relegated to the far background, a sort of ringing tinnitus at the edges of Blunt’s white-space sparse arrangements, and this too gains significance when reframed as the twinkling foil to a truly dumb guitar jam on “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” as if the shambling techniques were searching for entry to a heaven somewhere beyond the edge of the music’s fidelity. Blunt’s con artist fails, track by track, to transcend the mess of his own circular, epiphany-free life by only signifying honesty, and the listener is prone to recoil with a blanket mistrust and pretty much lose the “plot” entirely; an abusive relationship indeed.
So the idea of an honest attempt at redemption is a non-starter and a joke, from the plagiarized spirituality of “New York” to the piano solo on “Brutal” that Blunt can’t even stick around to hear, letting the final harrowing notes play out as he lights up in the booth and disappears. Fine. But what makes the listening experience so addictive isn’t an onanistic joy at recognizing and being let in on the joke, but at feeling that subconscious longing in spite of the endless obfuscation, a dark but powerful sense of recognition in the flubbed delivery, the human error and uncalculated sonic utterances that peek through even in a character succumbing to the enormous outside pressure to define oneself or drown. After the shock of being “tricked” dies down, Blunt’s short-circuiting of the boundaries of taste and instilled critical response feels liberating, a “redeemed” sensation of pure aesthetic, divorced from but still haunted by its many signifiers, mercifully limited to the handful of contexts it’s situated in (sound/song/album/music industry) and more than enough to boggle the brain.
Ultimately For now, The Redeemer’s many tangles make even some of the most personal music this year sound tedious and separated from social reality, and Blunt’s sometimes off-putting presence is much easier to accept when he gives this much agency to the listener, recognizing again and again that we must all frame our experiences in our own ways or risk feeling nothing at all.