Stephen Bruner (a.k.a. Thundercat) favors the same reflective, jazzy chord progressions from album to album, track to track. It’s such a resolutely rote approach as to discourage the critical reflex to cite this tendency as a caveat. It’s his endless song, and it hasn’t stopped feeling good for him. It sounds like he’s holding on, and he sounds strong with the dedication, even if sentimentality itself has been commercially robbed of its virtue (we get communally wistful about ads now, perhaps paving the way for a Demolition Man-style reverence for jingles to the exclusion of all else). But holding on is good. Life should move slow and be quaint and clingy, especially since pop culture has now become processed so rapidly that it can barely retain a consensus identity. Maybe in all of devolution’s intuitive wisdom, it shouldn’t, but much of our waste is too beautiful not to repurpose. We don’t even have call it that. What’s waste is letting go.
So Drunk’s a chill listen, but it’s also a restless one. Both its song lengths and lyrics reflect a man who is more in love with music as a passport to carpe diem than an end in and of itself. His CV amply displays how he’s skirted the thankless fate of the session man by throwing himself into his collaborations with an insatiable, contagious joie de vivre. His loose, conversational lyrics may not bear much scrutiny, but they never once feel like a pose being struck. Whether he’s musing about his love of pachinko, beating off, or getting friend zoned, it’s not being presented with a hook. He’s passing through, not wanting to tart up life’s ups and downs with an easy access button. Even if “Them Changes” draws you in with an “It Was a Good Day” shuffle, it settles into a slinky slight beautyflash like all surrounding it. The main draw to Thundercat’s music lies in its casualness, whether the mood is playful or somber.
Perhaps we’re in easy listening territory with this velvety shiatsu sprawl, but there is a sufficiency-surpassing, indelible quirk that provides a spring to the dulcet. The cover photo (like a livid Hindu god river-stalking Colonel Kurtz) is playful, but hints at Bruner’s approach to the basic ugliness of always being and always needing. Play (full and facetious), patterns (rote and random), and restless energy on still waters (deep and shallow). The musician/libertine throws a consistently charming gauntlet. Despite the incidental, diary entry feel of these songs, there’s much to come back to. Yacht Rock gods Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald vie for supremacy on the creamy-crisp “Show You the Way” (For my money, McDonald wins the day), and Kendrick Lamar provides superb flow on a beat one would be forgiven for thinking unsuitable for rapping (“Walk On By”). Yet on both tracks, Thudercat’s tender, heavenly vocal steals the show. Instrumental “Uh Uh” is like a smoothsail Squarepusher and has the uncanny feel of wrap-up music to a particularly spirited batshit late-night roundtable chat. The circumspect lament, “Jethro,” has the most delicate of wind effects on it, falling away for a frustrated flutter of drum & bass fills at the end, both patient and eager to get over.
With all of this album’s curious truncated charm, there remains a sense of longing. Not in a leaving-them-wanting-more way, but more that Thudercat’s work could be something more musically expansive. He is so gifted with creating texturally enticing future funk that something with a less short attention span could be revelatory. But this longing could be misplaced. Maybe short and to the point is how his muse works and reflective of where he is organically at in his life. His affinity for id-splayers like Eric Andre helps to illuminate his need to flip, even in a gracious frame of mind. But Drunk is an easy album to love if one takes it in on its own goofy, weedy, fusiony terms. Like an elegantly packaged bag of sour candy, it’s ornate business on the outside and bittersweet youthful abandon within.