The best types of musical collaborations are those that offer a fresh perspective, rather than a reformulation of stale ideas that didn’t quite work out elsewhere. Often you get the sense that when musicians work together they are doing so in the hope of finding some inspiration for a tired formula, to re-tread well-worn territory in new company. This could not be further from the truth for Inventions and their new album Continuous Portrait.
The third album from the duo of Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) sees them develop the sonic parameters of their previous work into more exploratory, eye-widening and enrapturing areas. There is a lushness, a depth and a breeziness to Continuous Portrait that is entirely bewitching in its widescreen splendour and ambition. The album flits between folk-tronica, neo-classical and ambient textures across its nine tracks, and feels like an enriching journey by the record’s end.
“Hints and Omens” begins with a laugh and then a spiralling synth line which is soon doubled with strings, piano and muted brass mingling in the background, while a hesitant, tripped-out beat finds its way into the listener’s attention. It brings to mind a desolate landscape on a warm day, and has echoes of Icelandic wonders Múm if they had Nils Frahm produce their work. There is a genuine sense of magic in “Hints and Omens” – a line not written lightly. A childish awe lies at the heart of the track and this is a recurring theme throughout the record as a whole. The music has a sense of discovery, optimism and fascination – thematic ideas which are very necessary right now.
The whirring majesty of “Hints and Omens” makes way for “Calico”, which more clearly enunciates this sense of youthful hopefulness and sheer unadulterated joy. A repetitive beat and guitar line is overlaid with snippets of elusive piccolos and recorders while a reverb-drenched choir intone merrily in the background.
This sense of childish wonder is also present in “Outlook for the Future”, which again incorporates wind instruments, played almost breathlessly, over a restrained keyboard line. The refreshing optimism of the track is temporarily denied toward the end as an array of adult voices are overlaid and intertwine to create of cacophony of meaningless intrusion, as seemingly random noises interrupt the established momentum and groove of the track. It’s as if the sounds represent the real world and their invasion of inner contemplation and happiness. The almost naïve and childish musical narrative is encumbered by the encroachment of the real world and the disturbed acoustics that result. Happiness, then, is seen to be achieved by creating, developing and sustaining a personal sense of self away from the hubbub of the world outside our windows. Or maybe that’s the lockdown isolationism in me writing.
“Spirit Refinement Exploder” sparkles with a glitchy beat, exuberant synth lines twinkling away and ethereal voices swooping in from time to time. Tremulous guitars waft in and out of focus and the whole song creates a hazy, crepuscular feel that is elevated by a pulsating keyboard refrain which lifts your head further to gaze at the burgeoning stars above the twilight skyline. This is music that teases, cajoles and finally (if that doesn’t work) forces accompanying visual imagery in the listener’s mind, so rich is its power of invocation.
The three tracks that close the album are best seen as a triumvirate of elegance. The neo-classical focus is heavy on these tracks, with piano being the aural glue that connects them all. “The Warmer the Welcome” begins this trilogy of splendour in pensive style. It’s a plaintive, almost maudlin song that stands in contrast to the life-affirming and joyful tone of Continuous Portrait up to this point. “A Time in My Life” continues this downbeat mood, before “Saw You in a Movie” brings the album to a close. The final track is eerily beautiful and has echoes of Stars of the Lid and A Winged Victory for the Sullen in its overall effect of being both soporific and stimulating. By the time the track ends, you have to snap yourself back to reality, so enveloping is its effect.
Continuous Portrait is a multi-layered beauty of a record. Inventions stand in marked contrast to Cooper and Smith’s work in Eluvium and Explosions in the Sky, which is a remarkable feat and a sign of true collaboration. You don’t get the sense that either over-rides the other in terms of input, and this project allows them to fully immerse themselves in the creation of sounds and musical structures that do not lean on the output of their other projects. There is a range of emotions and musical textures present on this album and it feels like quite a ride by the end. The only sensible response is to go back to the beginning and start all over again.