The world Vynehall creates here is so inviting.
It seemed a little strange for Leon Vynehall to subtitle his last release Rojus “Designed to Dance.” Is that really all there was to it? It felt like Jeff Koons declaring his balloon dogs had no meaning whatsoever—true, perhaps, but a bit of a cliffhanger. Nothing Is Still sheds some light on what he might have meant. This is a work of vast ambition, reaching back to his family history and his parents’ move from England to New York in the ‘60s. Though it’s actually shorter than Rojus, he’s selling this as his first album, as if to render Rojus and 2014’s beloved Music for the Uninvited apocryphal. And though Nothing Is Still is many things, one thing’s absolutely sure: it is not designed to dance.
Nothing Is Still finds Vynehall moving away from his friendly downtempo/deep house sound into the realm of ambient drift. Only a handful of tracks have drums, and with the exception of “English Oak (Chapter VII),” they’re far from dancefloor bangers. Nothing Is Still evokes similar feelings to Bibio’s British time-travel odyssey Phantom Brickworks or the Viking archaeology of Swedish duo D.Å.R.F.D.H.S.: an eerie melancholy that comes from traveling back through history, nostalgia for times long before you were born.
The record doesn’t have much to say about Vynehall’s parents, at least not explicitly. (It has even less to say about immigration, which seems like a missed opportunity in the time of ICE and the Syrian refugee crisis). Instead, Nothing Is Still takes on the patina of old photographs or the nostalgic sweep of New Hollywood period pictures. The cover, showing the Brooklyn Bridge waving at bizarre angles, brings to mind the famous shot of that bridge from Once Upon A Time In America—and the feeling’s not far off. While many ambient albums concern themselves with the vastness of space, Nothing Is Still is awed by time—by just how much history has passed even between the ‘60s and today.
Vynehall, long a lover of lush orchestral textures, is here abetted by a real string section. The first three minutes of the album are devoted to these strings, which play a sad overture suggesting buildings half-seen in the mist from a boat approaching shore. Then a faint whisper of a beat enters. Club music is rarely more than a half-heard presence here, which raises the question of why he even bothered with tracks like “English Oak (Chapter VII)” or the hip-hop lope of “Movements (Chapter III).” They feel incongruous, and it’s easy to wish he had committed more fully to the drift. Many of these tracks cut off at the two- or three-minute mark, as if Vynehall was concerned about boring dance fans.
It’s understandable that Vynehall would call this his first true album. In the streaming age, the difference between albums and EPs has at least as much to to do with the size of the ideas than the size of the work; look at the 23-minute baubles that’ve been coming out of Kanye’s Wyoming. Nothing Is Still comes bundled with a lot of big ideas, and the website for the album includes an entire novella co-authored by Vynehall and one Max Sztyber. But as a record it often feels too flimsy to support so much baggage. Besides, the world Vynehall creates here is so inviting it’s hard not to want more space to explore.