It’s always impressive when music this simple spins a universe this vast.
Malibu’s One Life EP is one of the most alluring fantasies ambient music has given us in a long time, planting pictures in our heads so vivid it’s uncanny to receive them from music and not from a film by Jeunet or Fellini. The anonymous French producer claims to have begun “Lost at Sea” with the image of someone floating on a grand piano in the middle of the ocean, and only an image that sad, sentimental and fantastic seems apt to describe these five tracks.
That’s especially remarkable given how simple these tracks all are. Malibu starts out with one of those unplaceable synth sounds that’s halfway between a choir and a string section; Iasos, the Greek new-age legend whose music is allegedly closest to what people hear after they die, uses a similar palette. Then she’ll add flickers of voice that sound like the imprint of some vanished pop star, finishing it all off with the powerfully organic sound of a real string section, guitar or piano.
Then there’s the sampled roar of the sea, which laps against several tracks here. The ocean shows up often in ambient music and is most often desired for its briny mystery, brutal elemental power or to conjure scenes of fish gamboling among the corals. Here we end up with a picture closer to the plastic waves of Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On or the endless mirror of Life of Pi: the ocean as a place where dreams come true and man is no longer the master of its environment.
You might remember Malibu from Mono no Aware, the PAN compilation from 2017 that declared a more emotional way of thinking about ambient music, of a piece with 2010s pop culture’s emphasis on vulnerability. Her track “Held” paired a flicker of Auto-Tuned vocal with an alarming monologue about a “big fire.” Her name seemed ironic—a city synonymous with an American ideal of celebrity, adopted by an anonymous French producer of experimental ambient.
One Life more closely resembles Malibu Beach, a place where people cavort and seals strand themselves beside the great sweep of the ocean. There’s something apocalyptic about L.A., a city where no city should be, stuck between the sea and the desert, always seemingly about to be annihilated by a solar flare. Who knows if she had L.A. in mind when she was making this EP, but there’s a similar sense of a frontier between our reality and one governed by other forces.
It’s always impressive when music this simple spins a universe this vast. The individual elements are plain to see, but it’s hard to put a finger on what elevates this music, what makes it seem like so much more than the sum of its parts, what makes it feel rococo and maximal and evoke the most expansive visions of cinema rather than just sitting there within the earphones. Like the ocean, it refuses to reveal its secrets, and we can only sit on its edge and stare out at it in awe.