More pervasive than a virus, anxiety and urgency has spread across our physical and virtual landscapes. The growing inequities of centuries old and current day complexes of oppression has reached a critical and necessary breaking point, forcing us out of our severe isolation back together in a call for justice. All the while, the continued trajectory towards climate catastrophe still creeps across the horizon into our view, another result of the valuing of profit over people.
These defining traits of the present moment find parallels on the newest body of work by Son Lux: Tomorrows, a long-format album to be released in three volumes over the course of a year. On Tomorrows, Ryan Lott, Rafiq Bhatia, and Ian Chang train their sights on volatile principles: imbalance, disruption, collision, redefinition. But for all of its instability, Tomorrows’ exploration of breaking points and sustained frictional places is ultimately in service of something rewarding and necessary: the act of questioning, challenging, tearing down and actively rebuilding one’s own identity.
“We’re peeling things apart and putting them back together throughout this record,” explains Lott. “Emotionally, relationally, and musically.”
Though Son Lux embraces musical exploration as a foundational practice, the band has never before experimented with format. Tomorrows does away with the restrictions of the traditional album, marking a notable departure in feeling from past releases. Whereas prior Son Lux albums have been packed to the brim with ideas, the three-volume format of Tomorrows affords the music space to breathe and develop. Each release sees songs spun together with liminal instrumental spaces, resulting in a more natural flow while letting sound lead in conveying the complexity and tension of the story.
From the start, Son Lux has operated as something akin to a musical test kitchen, questioning deeply held assumptions and rebuilding music from a molecular level. The band eschews genre conventions in favor of cultivating their own personal musical language rooted in balancing opposites. But on Tomorrows, they sometimes allow the scales to tip, resulting in a galvanizing internal violence that pushes songs to their limits. A prepared guitar melody folds over itself repeatedly, forming a chirping thicket. Drum pulses fan outwards and multiply across registers, aggregating into a throbbing mass. Diving cellos peel apart like weights on a pendulum before snapping together anew.
As much as confronting sustained instability is part of the album’s message, it is also central to the band’s creative approach. “The sound of Son Lux is discovered through a very intentional and deliberate process of experimentation where the end result is often entirely unknown,” says Lott. “We're constantly exploring and trying out different options. We can’t anticipate what the music will become.”
While the music on Tomorrows has been in development for the last three years, the lyrical content was written over the last three months, reflecting the tumultuous energy and paradigm shifts of our relationships to each other, our histories, and our expectations for tomorrow. Son Lux’s songs are constructed through an “inverted” writing process in which the lyrics score the instrumental, as opposed to the other way around. Meaning is often meant to be understood within the context of — or even recontextualized by — the sound. On lead single “Plans We Made,” a clock-like pulse emerges in the decay as Lott sings, “what is permanent remains.” Bhatia and Chang’s elastically lurching rhythms on “Only” are belied by Lott’s lyrics: “When you took me for the days, you took from the years.” “You’re reaping what you’ve sown,” Lott sings on “Honesty,” as an uneasy surge of bending strings rises up and threatens to consume the mix, “but what you hoped would never grow.” The introspective tone that begins “Undertow” — “count for me the cost, the number of tomorrows lost” — eventually turns outward in a plea for help as the music crests into its apex. “Come find me,” Lott sings from within crashing waves of sound, “if it’s not too late.”
Since starting Son Lux as a solo project, founder Ryan Lott has garnered a reputation as “the kind of songwriter who can turn the most intimate moments sweeping and majestic” (Pitchfork). But after crafting his first three albums alone, Lott stumbled upon a kinship with two musicians a decade his junior that was too strong to ignore: Ian Chang, whose rhythmic constructions “don’t feel so much like beats as sculptures” (NPR), and Rafiq Bhatia, who treats musical ingredients “as architectural elements — sound becomes contour; music becomes something to step into rather than merely follow” (New York Times). After collaboratively creating, releasing, and touring 2015’s Bones and 2018’s Brighter Wounds, Son Lux has solidified into a band, with each member bringing their unique sonic approach to create an otherworldly whole.
Son Lux’s sound is distinctly individual, a result of their reverence for artists who have carved an iconoclastic path forward. The band’s fluid approach to genre and structure draws on the groundwork of soul, hip-hop, and experimental improvisation, owing a debt to forebears as wide-ranging as Björk, Alice Coltrane, D’Angelo, Bob Dylan, and J Dilla. While their balancing of raw emotional intimacy and meticulous electronic constructions has earned comparisons to contemporaries like James Blake and Flying Lotus, Son Lux feels that it is the act of distilling their varied influences that has most strongly shaped their identity. On Tomorrows, they conjure vivid, unexpected worlds of sound, evoking textures as different as those of Timbaland and Terry Riley within the same composition.
Arriving at a time of considerable uncertainty in the world, Tomorrows is ambitious in scope and intent. Born of an active, intentional approach to shaping sound, the music reminds us of the necessity of questioning assumptions, and of sitting with the tension.