The debut album of Nate Brenner, polymath instrumentalist best known to date for his work as bassist in tUnE-yArDs, is one to which I have been looking forward for some time. The happenstance coming-across of his demo work on YouTube provided me with the best impromptu kitchen-cleaning playlist of this summer – the confluence of funk guitars, occasional breakbeat drum sampling and a mire of synths, sounds and effects seems a refreshing buffet after a fallow period of identikit mopey-core figurines coated in ersatz earnestness. Here’s a comprehensive look at 'Mister Divine'.
The album’s first, and title, track is perhaps the most relaxed of the album; it is a sublime opener, thick with warming guitar and honest vocals untroubled by effects and affectation. Ride cymbals, rim shots and snare clatter carry the bass from above, jazz licks and an octave lead singer diving in and out of the strings holding one to the other with subtle, reverbed "oohs" dropping in and out like stuttered vapour trails. All fades out but the bass, which lingers a little longer – a harking to the song’s hearth-fire warmth and a recognition of Nate’s usual instrumental place in other projects. This is one of few songs in which I, as a misanthropic listener, will tolerate the fade-out. In this case, it is a perfect mechanism for letting you believe the warmth will stay forever after, even if you don’t give in to the urge to skip back to the song’s beginning.
‘Starting Over’, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish. Harsh bass thumps slip out from under brash crashes and audacious vocal fiddlings. The song is as close to an affront as this album gets, and is a clear departure from the unabashed sublimity of the title track; it’s hard not to believe that Nate intended the song’s title to mirror the abject change in tone, as if Mister Divine’s direction wasn’t quite the right departure from his previous musical affiliations. The song, as an unfortunate result, sticks out like an over-reaching piece of wood-chip on a wall, and consequently seems a little forced from other disparate influences – like he heard Thom Yorke, Burial and Four Tet’s ‘Ego’ and decided to follow suit, just for one. Everything is a clatter, a cacophony, that from a distance sounds like a song – like those sculptures made out of various items placed at certain angles and distances from each other. However, the vocal line does stand up to scrutiny in of itself.
‘Dream’ is a little easier to stomach; by this point in the album, as the now-familiarly-prominent octaved bass leads into a 56k-modem synth-screech, metronomic cymbal-samples and plaintive, exiled vocals, you’re settling in to the aural landscape with which Nate is working. ‘Dream’ reminds of Jan Hammer Band in tone, the '70s influx of vocals following the backline in staccato percussive style. Dry vocal "oohs" and "ahhs" sound while woody, high-tone vocals dance about with a playful twanged guitar lead – a lick with which the song takes its bow, incidentally.
The fourth track, ‘Back In Time’, is an easy choice for second single to ‘Mister Divine’; it is another song of prominent bass, another milestone in Nate, as bassist, reclaiming his own instrumental agency from the collective endeavour of tUnE-yArDs. With a now-idiosyncratic smorgasbord of synth sounds and clever use of vintage vocal distortions and delays, Nate weaves a nostalgic backing fitting for the focus of his lyrics. ‘Sometimes I wanna go back/sometimes I wanna go back/Back in time’ is augmented to create a melancholic chorus of Nate-harmonies with rib-shaking low-end and a catchy descending synth motif, which once again plays out the song’s end.
It’s by ‘The Wall’, 'Mister Divine'’s middle track, that the first signs of listening fatigue set in. The song sits on a bed of percussive horn samples and quick snare grooves. Distorted guitar lead lines intersperse Nate’s typically tinny vocals, and at this point the sheer volume of disparate textures and sounds, which excitedly make their first appearances song by song, starts to overface you.
‘I Don’t Remember’ doesn’t do all that much to assuage these mid-album blues, itself a track based on the proliferation of constant motif in vocals, vocal lines and bass groove. The backing as a whole could easily be taken from an unaired episode of Flight of the Conchords, such is the throwback element of the drum samples.
With ‘Future’, though, the album returns to a place of enjoyment. The playful muzak intro, directly reminiscent of the chintzy programmed drum tracks in 80s clavinovas, imbues a certain optimism, which is carried through by another instance of brilliant vocals. On the whole, Nate’s vocal lines seem a standout component of 'Mister Divine', which, given the album’s seeming pride in its own instrumentation, is perhaps not the compliment it should be. At some points in certain tracks, their instrumentation and production get in the way of what is otherwise a fantastic tune. This is certainly the case with ‘Future’; the more stripped back the song gets, the better. A simple backline of bass and drums is fully refreshing after a cacophonous journey to reach this point.
'Mister Divine'’s penultimate track, ‘Living in a Magazine’, I like to think of as this album’s underwater level. The piece and the listener drown in distortions and delays, swim amongst, snarling whammied guitars and relaxed but portentous vocals. Like ink from an octopus, or seahorse children from its mother, the synth burbles forth from the deep with a final, much-awaited relinquishing of the high eq pinch, joined by a shoal of breakbeat moments.
‘Shadow’, 'Mister Divine'’s final track, is a marked step up in energy, something that is not only welcomed but necessary after a subdued middle act. Funky twiddles and burbled licks reinforce the album’s constant musical reference to running water, while the track’s instrumentation doesn’t distract this time, but assist. ‘Shadow’ seems a live, performative iteration of the impulse electronic musicians write from and through, and as such channels the best bits of dancey Four Tet and funky LA Priest. It is a great bookend, mouth-to-mouth after a half-album of drowning.
Ultimately, 'Mister Divine' is good, but a mixed bag. It sways from being a refreshing production to a glut of clashing elements, a meal with too much of each ingredient. In this, it perhaps suffers the same way as many albums, but by different means – the album sadly becomes a swamp to navigate halfway through, as ears fatigue and the impetus to listen decreases. This isn’t to say the album is bad, or its tracks boring, but instead that that the album is a slow-burn, definitely deserving of some time to soak in, to make sense. It is truly sad that 'Mister Divine' elicits this response, since the genius behind Nate’s more inspired moments on the album are deserving of immediate appreciation.