Album Review: Andy Stott – Never The Right Time

[Modern Love; 2021]

Preparing to listen to a new Andy Stott album as an established fan is like preparing for ritualistic dissociation. They’re treacherous journeys through clouds of sonic fog where strange voices run abound. Moving forward is frightening, but staying in place is unthinkable. One Manchester producer is the puppet master of this all, and his command over atmosphere is so great, it’s a wonder he doesn’t have at least a few A24 film scores in his discography. 

If you don’t love Stott’s music, that might sound hyperbolic. But it’s also nigh-impossible to envision listening to his best albums – 2012’s Luxury Problems and 2014’s Faith in Strangers – and not come away with some kind of intense reaction. How is it that this alchemist could turn out albums so distinctly beautiful, yet also so menacing? Elemental contrast is an easy shortcut into creating mood, but Stott binds his together so well, it feels like they’re one in the same while still tangible. It’s how a track like Faith In Strangers‘ “Violence” can feel like an Ambien-induced sleepwalk through a city on fire. 

As important as Stott’s devastating production are Alison Skidmore’s vocals. His former piano teacher’s voice folds into his realm, making it more human, but more importantly, more tangible. They have an amazing symbiotic relationship, where the perfect Stott drop is maximized by Skidmore singing in ways that defy dimensionality. Their combined forces are so potent that, almost a decade later, it still feels like an event to hear Luxury Problems opener “Numb”.

Never The Right Time, his latest album (following 2019’s more chaotic and Skidmore-less It Should Be Us), can’t help but feel by-the-numbers for Stott. The elements we come to expect and anticipate are all there, but the results are muted. You’re waiting for transcendence, and you can sense Stott trying to conjure it. The mystery remains, but the fulfilment is wanting. 

Certainly there are exciting moments here, as well as ones hinting at payoff to come. The dusky tremors of opener “Away never gone” give way to a stark drone, which evaporates as Skidmore’s reverent vocals enter, laced into starry synths and plucked strings. Two possibilities are considered: Is this Stott lulling us back into his space with familiar motifs, readying to drop a bomb moments later, or a sign that his playbook is getting a little worn?

It’s more so the latter. Never The Right Time eschews crowd-pleasing, but that seems more incidental than by function. His albums each feel distinct from one another, but they’ve always felt like they have a uniform feel and driving ambition behind them. His newest resembles an above-average B-sides compilation: something to tide over the diehards while they wait for his next official album. 

He still has a way with sounds, especially with his co-star. The wriggly and rumbly “Don’t know how” captures the feeling of numbness through late-night channel surfing or doom-scrolling, with Skidmore’s vocals gliding across each texture and tying together each section. The title track feeds into another part of the Stott Strategy: deconstructed club. While his clanging rhythms aren’t novel, he can make a greater statement and create a stronger sonic narrative through them. It’s not a one-sided conversation, either; Skidmore’s refrain of “I can’t see him” casts her as a muse, seeing the artist in front of her drifting into a void of his own making. 

Her presence isn’t the only thing holding these songs together, but it’s telling that the many weakest tracks are entirely instrumental. “Repetitive strain” has an unfortunately accurate title, losing itself in a sea of loops, the skittering drums and flute-like melodies amounting to little more than just a sound exercise. “Answers” nearly suffers the same fate, but the loops are much cooler, and the whiplash percussion and apocalyptic quaver of the synths are a much better pairing. 

The vocal tracks have some shortcomings too. “The beginning” has the pieces but not the blueprints for a great Stott track, as Skidmore reaches a level of ethereality not heard since at least Faith in Strangers while synths and drums sing and shuffle behind her. But it suddenly stops in favor of a lukewarm drone. The idea seems to be that when Skidmore’s vocals re-enter, the pay of will have been worth halting the momentum. Closer “Hard to Tell ” is maybe the most accessible song Stott’s ever released, with ringing guitar chords and Skidmore’s somber vocals creating a decent Portishead approximation – but we’ve come to hear Stott and Skidmore, not Barrow and Gibbons (and Utley). 

That’s not to suggest any plagiarism, even accidental, took place here. It’s just that the line between tasteful and timid is blurred in a way that hasn’t been an issue for Stott before. Never The Right Time is an active album, but layered elements aren’t substitutes for raw feeling, no matter the microgenre. Remarkably, the most accomplished track finds Stott scaling things back; “Dove stone” moves stoically through a drone gradient, with a subtle melody weaving through, allowing it to peak and valley with structure and resonance not present on the tracks stuffed with moving parts. By being the least overtly impressive, it’s Stott at his most impressive.