It’s difficult to review music like that of Jon Brooks’ The Advisory Circle. Why? Because such music purposely exists outside of the contemporary pop discourse. Brooks remains fascinated with halcyon memories of Cold War PSA culture and the musique concrète electronic explorations of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. His work is therefore derivative by definition, and while such blatant reliance upon nostalgia as a selling point might seem heavy-handed elsewhere, within the Ghost Box domain it becomes as necessary a philosophical underpinning as anarchy was to punk and anti-commercial apathy was to grunge. Never mind the fact that punk and grunge have long since become as commodified and corporate as any other popular music genre; the point is that such attitudes, once upon a time, came with the territory. All of which is to say: to enjoy The Advisory Circle, you need to abandon the idea that innovation and originality are the markers of musical success.
That’s not meant to be an insult; in fact, I don’t think Brooks himself would argue that his music is radical or unprecedented in any way. Still, it raises some uncomfortable questions: would there really be much sonic difference between a “good” and “bad” Advisory Circle release? At what point does continued adherence to a particular mood, tone, or era go from “consistent” to “redundant”? And what exactly is Brooks hoping to mine from this nostalgic quarry that he hasn’t already uncovered?
Thankfully, As The Crow Flies does indeed display aesthetic development. The key improvement here is in the songwriting itself; tracks like “Now Ends the Beginning” and “Everyday Hazards” are catchier, tighter, and more noticeably percussive than anything in Brooks’ prior catalog, analogous to (but also more sinister and less jaded than) Neon Indian’s midtempo daydreams. Meanwhile, “Here! In The Wychwoods” wouldn’t sound out of place on the indelible soundtracks to the N64-era Legend Of Zelda games, a more wistful take on Mind How You Go‘s stellar “Nuclear Substation.” The track also exemplifies another one of Crow’s strengths: a broader instrumental palette. “Wychwoods” offers delicate piano arpeggios, while “Ceridwen” and “Lonely Signalman” feature delightfully organic strums of an acoustic guitar — the latter also featuring Vocoder-filtered vocals that add a computerized touch to the song’s Pink Floyd-like melodrama. Fragile wind chimes and Suzanne Ciani-esque synth whistles accent “Innocence Elsewhere,” while “We Cleanse This Space” employs tribal bongos and a reverbed children’s choir. But these embellishments are hardly saccharine; in fact, in the wake of such unsettling moments as the album’s introductory assurance that “we make the decisions so you don’t have to,” the distant choir sounds less like a sweet harmonic addition and more like vestiges of a bygone culture following a nuclear fallout. The listener gets the impression that Brooks values his nostalgic signifiers precisely because they’re the closest he can come to actually revisiting them.
These upgrades make As The Crow Flies the most inarguably expansive Advisory Circle release yet. Still, Brooks remains tethered to his romanticization of the “Charley Says”-era of broadcasting. Brooks’ explorations of these spaces between childhood whimsy and a vague, threatening sense of looming danger are always worthwhile excursions, and his latest album is no exception. But imagine how wondrous his music could be if he finally freed himself from this particular memory-traversing yoke. There’s a reason those old televised PSAs were never more than a minute long; after all, there’s only so many ways to tell kids not to play with matches.