Swift brought a renewed soul to pop music production.
Richard Swift, the inventive producer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, died prematurely over the summer at the age of 41. Listening to an album released so soon after an artist’s death makes it easy to hear a kind of swan song, to consider the artist’s death as part of the music, especially with a musician who died in tragic circumstances, assailed by personal demons. But in Swift’s case, despite it all, his own restless, workmanlike productivity preempts such an interpretation. In a sense, The Hex is just another Richard Swift album—and it is an excellent one.
Swift brought a renewed soul to pop music production through his critically-acclaimed work with bands such as the Shins and Foxygen, much more so than many other, more famous producers whose use of a so-called “retro” aesthetic is facile and lacking in nuance when compared to Swift’s, often to the point that you can’t forget you’re listening to a 2018 production—the cheap thrill of compression gives it away. But on a song like the second track on this album, “Broken Finger Blues,” the feeling is that of digging through a crate of records and finding some obscure, forgotten classic from another era. The crispness and tightness of the sound, the reduction of a groove to its most fundamental elements and the sense of free sound exploration within the self-imposed constraints of pop music—this is pure Swift.
Even at its most straightforward moments, such as the piano-driven “Dirty Jim,” which is reminiscent of a Harry Nilsson number, the album has a kind of exploratory feel, as though even the simplest drum beat, bassline or guitar lick could lead to any number of further possibilities, all worth potentially pursuing. The playful innocence of this jaunty tune gives in to a mournful section sung in falsetto before turning back to an upbeat tempo once more, the shift having given it a slightly eerier, off-kilter inflection. Swift’s exploitation of retro elements, like the “doo-ron-rons” on “Wendy,” a track rife with big, echo-y drums and bubbly bass, is never presented uncritically, without some reinvention or subversion, whether through an unexpected juxtaposition or a sharp turn toward the unexpected.
Even when the arrangements tend toward cluttered, the effect is one of unity—on “Nancy,” a thundering beat, swirling keyboard lines, string effects and wailing vocals bring to the fore the emotional core of the song, which is the ultimate goal of any Swift production. And even groove-oriented songs, like the harpsichord-driven instrumental “HZLWD” with its insistent beat and robust bassline, have an expansive cinematic atmosphere that lend them a narrative feel even when there is nothing being verbalized. This becomes even more explicit on a song such as the penultimate track “Kensington!,” a track which sounds like it could easily run over the credits of a gangster movie with its no-nonsense attitude and squealing guitar.
Ultimately, even if you aren’t listening to the album with Swift’s untimely passing in mind, final track “Sept20” will present a reminder. The distant whistling at the end of the tender, piano-ballad closer culminates The Hex with a sense of heartbreak only hinted at earlier, but it also seems to invite the listener to begin again and relive an album that, like life, brims with both joy and pain.