Cantu-Ledesma has made for the listener a much needed antidote to the claustrophobia of the sweltering heat and the droning air conditioner.
The summer is empty. The days stretch and the sun rises and sets languorously. It becomes hard to do anything more than the bare minimum on the hottest days. The drone of air conditioners is constant. And this drone is accompanied by the stark truth that we are on the precipice of a disaster caused, in part, by these comfort machines. Still, we flock to the lake or the river or the ocean. We lay out on beaches. We stay up late. It may be that we drink a little too much. It may be that we do not quite turn our bodies into the beacons of desire we imagined in spring. We are never quite tired enough for bed, but always just a little too tired for much else. So, we laze, and settle into that strange land between waking and sleeping. Ambient artist Jefre Cantu-Ledesma has long been a sonic geographer of this liminal state.
Distinctive for his guitar-driven sound—the pinnacle of which is still probably 2010’s Love Is a Stream—Cantu-Ledesma’s music crosses frequently over into a sound reminiscent of shoegaze. However, he isn’t simply all washed-out guitars and gentle drum patterns. His 2015 record, A Year with 13 Moons, introduces harsher noise elements that contrast drastically with the dreamier aspects of his sound.
And nearly all of the sounds on the records released under his name have been distinctively his. That is to say, despite a vast discography dotted with collaborations, his solo albums have truly been, by and large, solitary efforts. His music, too, evokes solitude, which has long made it suitable for the humid languor of summer. It is the sound of one person in a room trying to both reflect and, maybe, repel loneliness. But this year’s Tracing Back the Radiance marks a radical departure from Cantu-Ledesma’s usual sound and working method.
Employing a small army of collaborators—Mary Lattimore and Chuck Johnson leap out immediately among the host of names listed—and setting his guitar aside, Cantu-Ledesma has created the cleanest and lightest record of his career. The organicism of Tracing Back the Radiance is like the red-gold light of early evening in August. While the record could be falsely accused of being merely “background music,” it only has this quality for those who fail to give it their full attention.
Album opener “Palace of Time” is a 21-minute suspension of temporality. The track hangs in the air and allows only the most subtle shifts in dynamics to occur. A snare is brushed gently. A piano lilts a few notes. A synthesizer provides a light sustaining note here and there to prop the whole thing up. There are other sounds, too, not as immediately identifiable. The track feels as though it lasts for hours—and this is to its merit.
“Joy” is the shortest and most traditionally structured track on the album. Opening with a pattern played on the vibraphone, the song gives way to a brief clarinet motif— not quite a solo and not quite a melody. Soon, a synth pad fills out the sound. A continuously plucked harp emerges from the background as the track reaches its crescendo. Deep in the sound is buried some bubbling percussion or bass. The track is brief and, indeed, joyous, especially coming as it does between the two monoliths that bookend the album.
The title track, even more minimal than “Palace of Time,” suggests a clever play on words. There is a guitar here, but it is a sly, reverse-sounding slide guitar, the sound of which suggests the tracing-back of the title. As the notes are struck, the sound seems to recede and then culminate in a single, radiant tone. Hanging in the back, almost imperceptible, seems to be the held chords of an organ. Late in the song, a voice breaks in, singing clear, single notes. For a track in which very little change takes place, the voice is not so much jarring as it is ecstatic, like a call to prayer. The instrumentation recedes and the voice builds something like a melody and then it, too, fades.
Given the way this record departs from what Cantu-Ledesma has done in the past—and given the wealth of talent he relied on to accomplish this—one might expect something more earth-shattering, but the record does the opposite. It is his most minimal work to date, almost altogether rejecting traditional song structures in favor of gossamer-thin texture and light-as-air movement. Summer can make one paranoid and impatient. With Tracing Back the Radiance, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma has made for the listener a much needed antidote to the claustrophobia of the sweltering heat and the droning air conditioner. Listening to it provides a gentle breeze instead, and opens up some much-needed space.