Album Review: MF Tomlinson – Strange Time

[Self-released; 2021]

In early 2020, when most people in the Western world were still blissfully maneuvering their pre-Covid lives, MF Tomlinson released the presciently titled Last Days of Rome, which, despite the ominous title, aspired to the bright eclecticism of Gorillaz’ Demon Days or Plastic Beach, the lounge-y vibe of Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, and a hybridization of mid-70s disco and the hip-hop canon. Tomlinson’s new album, Strange Time, on the other hand, shows the artist moving in a notably more Apollonian direction, his gestalts moodier and less ebullient. This is to say, the segue from Rome to Strange Time reflects a transformation of sorts for Tomlinson, the artist’s modi operandi considerably matured.

The album opens with the title track, drawing us into a dreamy mix of guitar and ambient sounds. Tomlinson quickly conjures the dystopian setting of the Covid Epoch: “If God exists it seems the world is really ending / The sky is red with flame and now there is a plague.” His voice is languid, tremulous. “Somehow the days dripped into weeks, slipped into seasons,” he continues, alluding to the disorientation experienced by so many in the face of disrupted status quos. Around the three-minute mark, the track erupts with Tomlinson’s sensual sax part, and toward the end of the song, he dishes up another sax sampling, a fluid yet slightly anxiety-inducing melodic flourish.

“Spring” opens with a drone-y mix of acoustic guitar, autoharp, and trumpet, birds singing in the background. Tomlinson imagines a planet without humans, a prelapsarian state in which “the world belongs to itself again.” Particularly striking is his mid-song vision: “The lions took back Trafalgar Square / And dolphins leapt free of the Thames … / The tigers of America all played on the planes.” A supple and trebly bass punctuates the latter part of the song, interwoven trumpet parts bringing to mind Daniel Knox’s recent work. Tomlinson’s voice is stripped of the aplomb inherent to Rome; instead, he sounds uncertain, wistful. By offering an idealized vision, he points to and laments the actual reality of environmental devastation at the hands of humans, what Elizabeth Kolbert painfully explored in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. With the koanic opening lines of “A Long Day” (“At the end of a long day / Begins another day / At the end of a long list / Begins another list”), Tomlinson displays Strange Time’s considerable debt – mostly lyrical and vocal – to Bill Callahan, while Ami Koda’s flute part adds a sonic warmth to the track.

On the almost eight-minute “Them Apples”, swirls of guitar, organ, and percussion wrap around Tomlinson’s and Connie Chatwin’s voices, reminiscent of Destroyer’s Poison Season or ken. Lyrically, the piece combines diarism (“All the world was in my eyes / … And so every day was the same”), dystopian-ism (“Books rattle in their shelves trying to save themselves from the fire”), agitprop (“Did you hear the Venetians didn’t go green / Now the fishes are nipping at their knees”), and commentary on the world’s mass dissociation, a global numbness and trance-like sense of denial fuelled by technology and addiction to an incessant flow of stimuli (“I stared endlessly at a screen / Like a rock, or a stone, or a slate, or a skull”). At the end of the song, Tomlinson repeats, “Talk to me world / why won’t you talk to me?,” reiterating his disconnection from the natural order. If “Spring” indirectly points to human criminality by envisioning a post-anthropic world in which original order is glorified, “Them Apples” serves as a head-on critique that contemporizes and politicizes the notion of our ongoing fall from grace.

On “Baby’s Been Gone,” Tomlinson describes how his neuroses flare up when his beloved is absent. Some listeners may be reminded of Father John Misty; however, while J. Tillman would probably tackle this song sardonically, Tomlinson embraces it with melancholy earnestness. The album ends optimistically, at least in terms of tone, with the buoyant and Rome-esque “Thursday, 8PM”. Tomlinson’s voice and a strummy accompaniment conjure 70s folk and soft-rock. While there are merits to ending a project on a sanguine note, in this case the closer sounds slightly out of context, a diffusive departure from the more cogent sounds and approaches of the preceding five tracks.

Strange Time spotlights MF Tomlinson’s versatility and attunement to the Covid-era zeitgeist: anxiety produced by pandemic-related limitations, the broader issue of biological and environmental precariousness, and the pressing truth that we’re not as equipped for introspection and solitude as we might think. Most engagingly, Tomlinson’s use of instrumentation on Strange Time shows sensitivity and precision, highlighting his ability to curate sonic elements that parallel the disturbing limbos we’ve been navigating for some time now.