You could be forgiven for not spotting them, but the signs were there from the start. Carmen Villain‘s 2013 debut album Sleeper was an unexpected musical venture from the former Vogue and Marie Claire cover model, and while it didn’t bowl over many at first glance, it did set her on her path. The indie-rock songs themselves might not have stuck in memory, but the curious focus on texture and space strangely did. Thus, having Villain as one of the female figureheads of ambient music from the past couple of years – complete with releases for Longform Editions and Geographic North alongside two more albums – it is not entirely surprising she has ended up where she is now.
Still, even after those aforementioned alluring and quietly majestic releases, Villain can still surprise, as she does on her new album Only Love From Now On. With a focus on melding environmental sounds with live instrumentation (from the likes of longtime collaborator Johanna Scheie Orellana and Norwegian avant trumpeter Arve Henriksen), she describes Only Love as “wishing to maintain a sense of careful optimism for the future, while on the cusp of something unknown”. It’s a feeling of in-between that she captures here, working in that liminal space where everything seems to come together naturally but is also as carefully constructed as an intricate antique watch.
At its most magical, Only Love furrows into a focus on texture. The pebble-like percussive track on the dub-inspired “Subtle Bodies” wouldn’t be out of place on múm’s 2002 album Finally We Are No One and, gradually, the whole track begins to sound like it’s unthawing; it’s like the aural equivalent of watching seasons change, the snow of winter melting into the budding sunshine of spring. On closing track “Portals” there’s a percussive lilt with a timbre that’s somewhere between wooden and metallic, as wispy alleys present themselves in front of the listener. There’s a cavernous sound and sense of scale at play, half clarinet and half flute playing off each other – all to alluring effect – as Villain adds gradual light to the darkened chasm, giving you a sense of just how huge the place she’s led you into is.
The title track, featuring flautist Johanna Scheie Orellana, is like weightlessly floating about sun-kissed clouds. Orellana’s touch is lighter than on previous releases, helping to fuse with the ethereal backdrop. Arve Henriksen’s guest spot on opening track “Gestures” might just (unsurprisingly) steal the show though. Here, Villain conjures a hallucinatory mood, like some incantatory moment we are intruding upon; over the top Henriksen has lyrical conversations with what sounds like versions of himself in other dimensions. The whole thing is strangely trance-like, which is also a way of saying it’s dazzling in ways that feel entirely new and unexpected from Villain.
Even with guests and layers stripped away, she can still construct ambient moments that stick in your head. The wavering woodwind loops on “Silueta” become more and more manipulated as the track progresses, and it’s hard to tell if you’re ascending or descending (or both simultaneously). Like an unused track from Bon Iver’s 22, A Million or i,i, “Silueta” is both dizzying and meditative, Villain once again luring you in with that polymorphous, hypnagogic, transcendental space. It’s diachronic as it is deliberate in its movement – a sense of movement Villain has had command of since the get go. On Only Love From Now On she’s now using it – along with that deft sense of space and texture – to its greatest effect. The signs may have been there from the start, but it’s still surprising in the best way possible.