An often neglected aspect of music is its ability to create imaginary spaces. Either that or it is presupposed, but in either case, it is underappreciated. Half of Where You Live is an album about places and therefore about space. Gold Panda has said it was composed by his experience traveling, which he has been doing a lot of since his 2010 debut album, Lucky Shiner. Its sense of wanderlust reminds me of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which imagines a series of fantastical places of Kublai Khan’s empire, each a symbol of the trappings of humans: memory, death, desire. The cities are imagined and therefore invisible, but they show how our lives and emotions imbue the fabric of space. Gold Panda’s album works on the basis that auditory space is equally evocative and invisible: real sounds of seemingly real places become inactualizable forms of the imagination, entangled in memory, desire, hope, and regret.
The spectrum of the album is determined at the outset in “Junk City II.” Coming around to a thick, vaguely “Oriental” haze swimming in formlessness, you are immediately wrong-footed into a brazenly clean beat that seems to have originated from not only an entirely different place on the planet, but also one steeped in a completely contrary perception of time. Yet within the first minute, Gold Panda successfully manages to splice this stark incongruence, allowing the original hint of eternal lassitude to return, percolating through the now curbed driving force, which gradually evolves into a full-fledged mechanism. All is momentarily arrested for the introduction of a simplistic patterned arpeggio before the preceding parts return, finding cohesion above a round 4/4 beat. The track continues to build layer upon layer with waves of bass that sparkle as they crash and a beautifully agile marimba that may well turn the corners of your lips; harmonics are dotted throughout and a liberated melody whistles overhead. In an interview, Gold Panda says this track, inspired by Tokyo, is meant to point towards dystopia and indeed from the disjunction of the antique and the intensely modern; you are ultimately left with the texture of a sultry metropolis, growing of its own accord, sprawling out of control.
“Brazil,” the album’s first single, functions similarly. The beat that evolves as its main theme above the apt vocal sample — “Brazil” — is a wonderfully acrobatic back-and-forth pattern, sounding like a game of ping-pong played outside Newtonian space. This abstract electronic free-play is then softened by fuzzy modulations and melodic arabesques before being submerged into a thriving leafy lushness. What is magical is the perspective switch: that unmistakeably computer-generated beat enters the Amazon and is seamlessly transformed into the call of a bird of paradise.
You can see this phantasmagorical effect in the cover art: Gold Panda’s music is simultaneously geometric and kaleidoscopic. The ability to naturalize electronic sounds is what produces his particular heartwarming aesthetic, but it also shows culture and nature reinstating themselves in appropriating sleek modern forms: the cities of this album are all contemporary, but they are equally overflowing with life. Following “Brazil” is “My Father in Hong Kong” which, along with “S950” and “Enoshima,” gives respite to the upbeat tracks: an entrancing, almost soporific introspective plunge — the kind of musical moments so therapeutic you feel like the waves of sound are not merely beautiful, but are in fact doing you psycho-physiological wonders, which they probably are.
Overall, the treatment of sound on Half of Where You Live seems a whole lot more objective than its predecessor. Trading in the glitchy, inhibited, and nerve-twitchingly feverish beats for a slightly more staid pace, which finds its roots more and more in house, hip-hop, and R&B, the earlier Gold Panda sound of joyous melancholy and angular sweetness is lost. Lucky Shiner is referenced throughout, most noticeably in the backbone of “We Work Nights” and the opening of “Flinton,” but in each case, the energy is somewhere else and follows a different course. “The Most Liveable City” in its skipped beat falling forward over itself returns us closest to a sense of spinning bliss akin to that of the debut, with morphing shapes to wonder at and a climactic bedrock of modulating bass. It is disappointing that this spiritual realm is only glimpsed at, but Half of Where You Live is evidence of an aesthetic that has been brought to self-consciousness and one that therefore precludes its younger self. Gold Panda shows himself to be a more mature, more skilled architect of sound, creating vast textures that expertly render the materiality of his samples.
There is no “You” to this album, but that’s because it’s not so much lost in youthful absorption but rather in the vibrancy of the places of the world we inhabit and how they live on in our memories and dreams. “Brazil” is and is not Brazil: it is perhaps in this sense that these tracks are intended to be half of where we live.