Robin Guthrie is an artist that really needs no introduction. As the guitarist and arguably the chief architect for the seminal Cocteau Twins, Guthrie has influenced untold numbers of dreampop/shoegaze artists and listeners. And, despite a career spanning several decades that includes an almost ridiculous amount of high quality, inspiring releases (both in Cocteau Twins and as a solo artist), Guthrie continues to hone his craft, in a process influencing whole new generations of music lovers.
With this overwhelming track record in mind, it’s almost anti-climactic to review Guthrie‘s latest full-length ambient instrumental solo offering, Carousel. Are we to expect the fiercely original ground-breaking sounds that Cocteau Twins unleashed upon the world in the 1980’s? Are we to simply be content that the old master is still making music, without really critiquing the art Guthrie is offering? Either approach colours the way one listens to Carousel, with misleading results. It is far better to evaluate Carousel on the actual music, turning a blind eye, at least for a moment, to the instant name recognition that Guthrie brings to the mind of the dreampop lover. “Some Sort of Paradise” open the album with lulling, muted guitar lines cascasding over each other in a gentle wave of sound. Light electronic percussion (a hallmark of many of Guthrie‘s releases) pervade throughout the introductory song, giving a sense of form and structure to an otherwise intuitive melody. On this opening track, Guthrie builds layer upon layer of guitar lines, ultimately creating a song that is more nuanced than initially meets the ear. The short “Sparkle” follows, with its more conventional structure and, well, sparkling dynamics that lift the song into the stratosphere. Much of Carousel inhabits that slow-to-mid-tempo range rhythm, and features expertly crafted guitar sounds that weave gorgeous melodies throughout, such as on “Delight” and “Close My Eyes and Burn”. The approach makes for a delicate listen overall. However, there are moments when Guthrie transcends the light, airy mood of his recording to create something special. For instance, “Search Among the Flowers” shivers with a subtly building intensity inherent in its stunning guitar and keyboard sounds and inspired chord progression. This song conjures images of pristine, icy yet comforting landscapes in the mind’s eye, even as it builds from its particularly serene opening notes to a full production with subtle electronic percussion and other sounds. Similarly, “Waiting by the Carousel”, with its patient, slightly dark feel, stuns the listener with its raw beauty and emotion. It’s as if Guthrie‘s guitars embody the morose and wistful human emotions of the player, before the song erupts into a climactic dénouement. Fittingly, “Little Big Fish”, the longest track of the album, closes Carousel with a heavily effected ambient song that fades into nothingness.
It’s moments like these that lift Carousel beyond the realm of being merely another album by some aging has-been. The album shows an artist with an ear for gorgeous melodies, beautiful sounds, and enough creative ideas to engage the listener and take them places. It’s one thing to plug a guitar into a pedal and play around with the sounds that come out; it’s another thing altogether to write songs that utilize such sounds perfectly to capture human emotion while retaining an often stunning aesthetic of beauty. Perhaps Carousel does not break ground like those old Cocteau Twins recordings (for instance, Hammock, Eluvium, and Jonsi & Alex craft similar kinds of gorgeous ambient-pop music with their guitars and loops), but the CD shows Guthrie to be an inspired artist that makes listeners swoon to his delicate music. On its own, Carousel is a lovely recording that warrants repeat and careful listens, and when taken in the context of Guthrie‘s lengthy career, this release rightfully takes its place as yet another ridiculously wonderful collection of songs by this rare artist.