Johnny Jewel Digital Rain

[Italians Do It Better; 2018]

Styles: synthetic soundtrack, aquatic atmosphere, blue-bathed background
Others: Chromatics, Italians Do It Better, John Carpenter

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
– Roy Batty, Bladerunner

What is filmic music without the (human) voice? When the voice dies, disappears? (If disappearing is indeed dying, is vocal-less music haunted by the voice’s absence? Or alternatively, is a vocal performance, particularly when recorded, itself inevitably a reminder of mortality?)

The clock is always ticking.

Vanishing acts are characteristic of Johnny Jewel’s current oeuvre — the delayed appearance of Chromatics’ long-awaited Dear Tommy (due to Jewel’s destruction of the completed album after a near-death experience) and his Windswept work on Twin Peaks: The Return, itself a meditation on the ultimate unrecuperability (unreCooperability) of death and loss.

Twin Peaks’s opening scene is one in which water brings forth death. But water is also the source of life, amniotic fluid, the primordial ocean from which we crawled forth as reptiles. “A great while ago the world begun / With hey, ho, the wind and the rain…” Jewel described Windswept as a rebirth and a new origin point: “like floating.” Digital Rain then becomes an afterbirth. Digital fluid, slick with oily rainbows, red with rust, or limned in chameleon latex, laps at the threshold of consciousness — smoothly, without intruding within.

But the literal water reference here is Jewel’s L.A.-based homage to a Busby Berkeley bevy of rainy cities he has known (Houston, Portland, Montreal) — missing them like the deserts miss the rain. In a sand-streaked landscape of reds and yellows, Jewel constantly feels blue. There’s a nostalgia present that’s never been far from his work, both in its 1980s-influenced soundscapes, and in the themes of longing, dreams, mystery, and regret, the synthetic saudade of Jewel’s best-known project Chromatics.

And these tears flow together, Alicesque, to form waves. Synthwave and synthesizer soundtracks have had a massive revival in recent years. Stranger Things rules the airwaves, John Carpenter and Goblin are namechecked to the point of exhaustion, and minor, regrettable subgenres slouch toward Bethlehem to be born. Jewel and former labelmate Mike Simonetti, along with other proponents such as Bottin and Giallo Disco Records, were on this before the soundtrack became a soundtrack, before it began to merge into the background of our music listening habits. Jewel has weathered the storm: “I remember being crucified for the same things that I’m now being heralded for.”

To what end? The textures here, purely electronic, are pleasant, like hearing rain pattering on the window from inside a warm home. Digital Rain is an elegant album, its spattered drops pointillist. But it’s not an album that is particularly memorable or demands attention. It’s the calm at the eye of the storm — and finds itself becalmed.

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