After listening to Hot Chip, people may think they know what to expect from frontman Alexis Taylor with his solo material. Those people would be wrong, if they were expecting the tight “alt-dance-pop”. On Await Barbarians rhythm and sounds are stripped back to something loose, unpolished and at times minimalist. What remains is Taylor’s quirky songwriting style. Whether this truly works or not is a matter of opinion.
Much thought has been put in to flow and how the album works as an overall body of work. There is an intro and an interlude (around the halfway mark), both played on the piano, which work very nicely together to lock the album together. Sonic themes remain throughout – including what could be described as a lo-fi and intimate sound. Taylor’s sound palette makes use of modulated piano, analogue sounding synths and beats (where they are included), pained guitar, and- of course – his vocal, which is always prominent and clear. In fact, most of the music on this album is clean and unaffected.
That is not to say it is at all conventional, however – the songwriting is obscure and mainly avant-garde. Take ‘Closer To The Elderly’, for example – the only elements to this song are a synth that sounds as if it was pulled out of a trance track, and an off-kilter vocal part with lyrics that are honest, which seem to be about getting old. This song feels like it should have a certain impact, but it just doesn’t quite reach it. Obviously, the minimalistic approach here is deliberate, but all the same it is questionable. The track stops being that engaging after the first verse – for a 5:30 song, it simply needs more.
It is also unclear what Taylor may actually be singing about a lot of the time throughout the album with his cryptic lyrics, which doesn’t help in keeping the listener captivated either. The problem with the album is that, even though these songs are sonically direct (i.e. no walls of reverb that are so popular and tempting in a lot of music), the songwriting is just quite dull in parts, as it fails to really go anywhere. Examples of this come in ‘Immune System’, ‘Dolly and Porter’, and ‘Where Would I Be?’. They all boast unique little hooks, harmonies, and odd but intriguing sounds, which are nice. But that is it – they are just nice; these songs in general just waft over the listener with no real impact.
A highlight of the album is one of the first tracks revealed, ‘Elvis Has Left The Building’. The track placement here is crucial to the impression of this track. Coming straight after previously mentioned ‘Closer To The Elderly’, the track sounds much more warm, after the coldness of the previous track. It’s like stepping back inside a warm and comforting house after standing outside in the cold. The track presents delicate violins combined with an electric beat and piano chords, to a pleasing effect.
However, the main highlight of the album for me is ‘Am I Not A Soldier?’. It keeps the pleasant, chilled vibe the album has had running throughout, but presents Taylor’s melancholic thoughts in a better way than other songs on the album. The analogue beat, smooth bass line, and the simple textured flute sound make for the warmest sounding song on the album. What Taylor does even better here is use a brilliantly wonky and barely-there synth hook in the chorus, which has great contrast to the rest of the track.
Taylor has actually included two similar versions of the same song (‘Without A Crutch’), with the less developed version acting as a closing track. As an album which lacks much strong melody, this was a clever decision by Taylor, as the simplistic and strong vocal melody in this track is reinforced for a second before the album ends, presented in a more stripped back way than the first time around. It is a great way to wrap the album up.
Await Barbarians is a step inside Alexis Taylor’s contemplative and anxious mind. It is at times disorientating (see ‘Lazy Bones’), and at times more traditional in terms of song elements and production. What it presents is a relaxing and generally satisfying listen, which does lose some focus along the way. This album feels like a self indulgent sigh, which pulls listeners along for the sketchy and confessional ride.