A collage of images, including a deer, an Atlantic landscape, and a purple ear, dominates the cover of Tim Exile’s third album, Listening Tree. This oddball mélange, which appears to be floating somewhere in outer space, has sprung forth from the ground and is presumably a visual embodiment of the album’s title. It’s reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s embarrassing flop sci-fi feature The Fountain, and the album’s thematic content also orbits a similar universe to that film. It’s difficult not to picture bald Hugh Jackman zipping through the universe in a bubble as Exile (real name: Tim Shaw) sings: “I’m stuck in the fast shifting space where gravity disappears/I’m orbiting some random place that I haven’t seen for years” (from “Family Galaxy”).
Shaw is an electronic musician with a penchant for the speedy rhythms of gabba, breakcore and jungle. On Listening Tree, his most overtly pop record yet, he’s filtered all these influences into a more refined sound that inhabits a middle ground located somewhere between ‘80s synthpop (Blancmange, Depeche Mode) and contemporary electronica (Aphex Twin, Squarepusher).
This approach has certainly made Shaw’s music more palatable, but his tinkering in the studio (he’s an accomplished tech head; just check out this interview and try to stay awake) has mostly drained his music of any emotional resonance. He’s an adept programmer, but it often sounds like he’s over thinking songs and squeezing all the sentiment out of his music in the process. Couple this with a series of dispassionate and often embarrassing lyrics, and Listening Tree falls stone cold flat on too many occasions.
“Fortress” is the low point of the record, with Shaw bellowing out lines like an army general. “Bring in the archaeologists to unearth your heritage,” he barks, while an overly complicated backing track, which sounds like several songs battling for attention like petulant children, stutters and squelches behind him. At the other end of the Listening Tree spectrum, “Pay Tomorrow” offers brief respite by occasionally stripping away all the musical clutter. It’s reminiscent of Heaven 17’s anti-capitalist tracts from Penthouse and Pavement, but clipped of all the lyrical nouse and knowledge of the framework of pop that makes that album an enduring pleasure.
The two instrumental tracks, “There’s Nothing Left of Me But Her and This” and “When Every Day’s a Number” provide welcome respite from Shaw’s bad Phil Oakey impression, but even they can do little to rescue Listening Tree from decelerating in interest as it progresses. Shaw is a skilled arranger, but his music lacks the originality, ideas and emotional content that are so often absent from the work of musicians who are extremely skilled at their craft. To go forward, he needs to unlearn everything he knows to turn proficiency into passion.