Conceptual albums are a rare beast in mainstream electronica. More obscure artists like Tim Hecker and Flying Lotus regularly give their albums an overarching theme, but given William Phillips’ (Tourist) pedigree with pop artists like Sam Smith, U stands out as somewhat ambitious. Phillips has taken the somewhat traditional breakup album concept, and moulded it into a largely instrumental form, and whilst it’s not always successful, it is always interesting.
The actual musical experience of U feels a bit like taking a tour through the last six years of English bass music, particularly that of Hot Flush Recordings artists like Mount Kimbie and Joy Orbison. Both the two opening tracks include Mount Kimbie styled percussion, featuring clattering, sharp sounds, as though someone recorded kitchenware being banged together. However, the second track – To Have You Back – moves in a satisfyingly energetic direction, with a mid-song, granular synth drop that recalls the early works of James Blake. There’s a lot of variety on the album, which is both a blessing, and a curse. Pre-release single Run may have a Scuba-indebted techno beat, but it feels out of place amongst the two-step rhythms that make up most of the album.
The most interesting facet of U remains its conceptual base. Appropriately for a breakup album, the mood of the ten tracks is largely melancholy, as though Phillips wants to dance away his pain. In spite of the album not featuring any traditional lyric writing, Phillips seems to have chosen his vocal samples carefully, with specific care being given to the actual words. Whilst many of the aforementioned artists treat their samples as vowels to be manipulated, Phillips (like the grandfather of dubstep, Burial) arranged his samples into phrases with meaning. Album highlight Wait pitches up and down the line “I still wait”, and over the slow-burning, pad based instrumental, the effect is quite moving. The drop on the aforementioned To Have You Back takes on a similar power, and the repeated line “just to have you back” gives the bombast real weight.
Unfortunately, the second half of the album lacks the character of the first, descending into a repetitive barrage of house synths and chopped-up vocals. The first five tracks feel much more syncopated and dynamic, such as in the way the title track opens with a wash of field recordings. The second half of the record is perfectly listenable, and For Sarah – the closing track – is enjoyably moody, but it just doesn’t maintain the pace of the first. In spite of its unevenness, U stands a strong solo debut for Tourist, and an enjoyably conceptual collection of UK electronica.