Jon Hopkins: Singularity review – beautiful but heartbreaking
My favourite type of electronica will always be the kind that depicts savage human emotions in a way that just can’t be captured through more organic forms of expression. When it hits the right notes, the human voice strikes the outer reaches of your soul, but electronic music can sound like 10,000 brain processes firing at once. It has the ability to encapsulate the complexities of this thing we call sentience. All while making you trip out and gyrate to the fierce movement of the beats.
Jon Hopkins makes this kind of music. His fifth album Singularity is said to reflect his psychology during the writing process. If so, the caverns of Hopkins’ mind are truly disturbing. The producer and musician’s pulsing, glitchy EDM and downtempo, ambient sounds are imbued with a grimness that’s hard to turn away from. If you don’t recognize this gloaming within Singularity then consider yourself a lucky person.
Representing Hopkins’s exploration of “the dissonance between dystopian urbanity and the green forest,” the album is separated into two distinct halves. There are the muscular, cacophonous arrangements of Side A, which could soundtrack a lurch through a cursed sci-fi city. These sounds make way for more tranquil experimentation and acoustic piano recitals on Side B. The sonic switch is akin to moving from the lights and lasers of a lurid techno club to waking up in a field – two wildly different settings that make up the same brutal experience.
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Singularity channels the spirit of the 1980s tech noir envisioned by cyberpunk movies like The Terminator. There are shades of Vangelis’s eternally influential Blade Runner soundtrack and the electronic tinklings of Brian Eno. Hopkins might know musical history but he never sounds bound to it. Take the title track, which is ushered in by Vangelis-esque noir textures. Emerging from this relative non-aggression comes Hopkins’ pulsing, alarming orchestration. His techno tracks are a reminder that these temples of gratification we call clubs can be the setting of so much substance-fueled self-hate. In nightclub culture, Hopkins only sees the darkness.
On Emerald Rush, the offbeat drum thumps are wrapped in ceremonial chants. Here, Hopkins reveals another one of his great strengths – fusing technology to humanity. Despite the synthetic instrumentation, there’s an animate, natural feeling to his arrangements. Tracks such as the textured, thumping, 10-minute Everything Connected evolve and grow like an organism, never getting stuck in flat, symmetrical loops that afflict some other intrepid button-pushers and laptop musicians.
Feel First Life feels like a half-time costume switch as the album shifts into a more serene space. In isolation, some of these songs are a little brittle – you could slide Echo Dissolve or Recovery on to one of those Spotify playlists set up to help people snooze – yet as a fully functioning piece, the calmness of the album’s second half acts as a good counterpoint to earlier tension. Here, Hopkins’s beauty is the more dulcet kind. The heartbeat beneath C O S M glittering electronics sounds like an android coming to life. The low-key dubstep of the near 12-minute Luminous Beings, an album highpoint, pulses peacefully. On top of the beat, the upbeat keys offer Singularity a rare moment of optimism.
In terms of Hopkins’ career trajectory, this isn’t quite as good as his last album, 2013’s Immunity, which was something of a breakthrough for the Englishman, but it does feel like the continuum. Like Immunity, it’s beautiful and it’s heartbreaking – as attractive as a sunrise peaking out over an doomed industrial zone. There’s humanity in desolation. Hopkins knows it to be true. That’s why we desperately need him out here.