As if to disregard the notion that the ever-inevitable debut album should represent a malleable template from which an artist can grow upon musically, there have been enough notable cases where audience and press alike have consistently and unfairly held each of the artist’s subsequent albums to the standards of the first. This oftentimes occurs when a debut is so well-received, enthusiasm for it can overwhelm any consideration for an artist’s desires to explore or experiment.
Simply put, first albums can sometimes haunt an artist for the rest of their career, which may in fact be happening to Swedish minimal techno artist Axel Willner, better known to us as The Field. In 2007, The Field’s first album came out, and it seemed almost everyone was struck, or more appropriately, dumbstruck — albeit pleasantly — with its blissfully subliminal sounds and minimalist production. The aptly titled From Here We Go Sublime went on to make the rounds for not only one of the year’s best electronic albums, but also one of the year’s best albums, period. For that year and the next, Sublime became my very own blissed-out soundtrack to everyday life, whether driving through the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles for work or walking from the East Village to Greenwich in New York for class several months later. The album was so perfectly satisfying that I barely gave a thought as to what Willner would cook up next, and if I did, I suspected it just wouldn’t be as amazingly beautiful. When Willner’s second album as The Field finally did come out, I found myself almost predictably — like everyone else — giving it a relatively cool reception: Yesterday and Today was praised overall for the sincere quality of its music, but its forays into the non-electronic and pop genres were considered a sort of misstep from The Field’s subliminal origins. A perception would build that Willner would be unable to top his work on From Here We Go Sublime.
It’s in light of this perception that The Field’s third album, Looping State of Mind, makes its most interesting and relevant statements on the part of Axel Willner as an artist and musician. On a superficial level, Looping sonically resembles Sublime more so than it does Yesterday, yet it retains both the latter’s pop sensibilities (in its own unique way) and its format (fewer songs and longer). What sets it apart is that, in keeping with its title, Looping is highly, perhaps even frustratingly, repetitive. Willner, however, quite cleverly — and economically — utilizes attributes particular to repetition to surprisingly affective results. The songs on Looping have an uncanny ability to conjure and evoke feelings, emotions, affects, images, and ideas of high complexity — beyond just what now seem like mere bliss and ecstasy — the likes of which Sublime, quite frankly, could not. Looping has veritable depth and soul, and as a musical document, it represents Willner at not only his most patient, but also his most artistically mature.
“Is This Power,” the first track off Looping State of Mind, feels like it could go on forever, and maybe it has been: we’re just listening to a snippet of its eternal lifespan captured on the album. “Power” also immediately sets the standard for most of what’s to follow, with its ambient loops and bass guitar pop complementing each other to captivating melodious effect. The second track, “It’s Up There,” reaches back to Sublime territory, but again, its pop-derived aspects — as embodied in the beats/percussion and in its restrained melodic variation — also hint at Yesterday and Today. With the next track, “Burned Out,” Willner’s music starts to sound reminiscent of what Underworld was doing on their first two albums. Bittersweet, rich, ambient melodies are given time to set the tone and mood before distorted vocals kick in, manipulated to sound as if several voices are singing in unison. “Arpeggiated Love,” the album’s fourth track, also recalls early Underworld; strangely, it might be the album’s most dance-oriented track, consisting of repetitive hooks that create feelings of both weariness and wonder. Meanwhile, Looping’s title track recalls its first: it’s so consistent that it seems like it can’t be stopped. Approaching its finale, however, the track is allowed to develop and variate, as various melancholic but richly uplifting ambient melodies take turns directing its emotional tone.
With Looping State of Mind, Willner continues to demonstrate a talent for affecting the listener with only bare, minimal production. What is more, the album’s capacity to affect the listener on a deeper, richer, and more complex level shows that he has only honed this talent. That Looping is able to accomplish this by referencing From Here We Go Sublime, appropriating Yesterday and Today’s controversial pop aspects, and unabashedly employing its own unique theme of repetition is impressive. Looping may redeem the perceived missteps taken by Willner on Yesterday and Today, and it may eventually be viewed as a worthy follow-up to the still extraordinary first album, rather than as a disappointment. After all, were it not for picking up from some of that second album’s explorations and experimenting, Willner may not have been able to affect us as deeply and profoundly as he does on Looping State of Mind, showing us not only that he has successfully moved past the confines of his early work, but also that he’s presently at the top of his game.