Release Date 02/09/2018
Brighter Wounds finds Son Lux transformed all over again. Last time around, on 2015's exultant and explosive Bones, Ryan Lott's genre-defying solo project became a bonafide band, igniting his volatile mix of electronic pop, unusual soul and outright experimentalism. This fifth album marks another fundamental shift as Lott leaves universal themes behind to write from a personal perspective. While making these songs, he became a father to a baby boy and lost a best friend to cancer. Days of "firsts" were also days of "lasts," and the normal fears of first-time parenthood were compounded by a frightening new reality—Lott's son arrived shortly after Election Day. These songs draw on all of that: warm reflections of a fading past, the pain of still-present loss, and a mix of anxiety and hope for a future promised to none. Fittingly, guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang help deliver Son Lux's most dynamic, inviting album yet.
It begins with an overture: "Forty Screams," an uneasy letter from Lott to his unborn child with a score as theatrical as it is dooming. Lott's ghostly whisper conveys regret—"I had wanted a better world for you"—while also begging this innocent soul to "scream love" in face of chaos. But the anthemic roar of "Dream State" follows, providing instant uplift as a triumphant shout blasts through a cloud of synths, plus woodwinds and brass from the yMusic crew, who appear throughout Brighter Wounds. The song's ideal vision of youth—"Invincible skin, it's how we all begin"—contrasts poignantly against the weathered R&B of-the minimal "Labor." Chang's crisp pacing and Bhatia's melismatic fluidity push and pull at Lott as he begs, "Come to life," to his newborn, who required CPR upon his arrival into this world. This sort of firsthand vulnerability is new to Son Lux, and it makes it impossible to not feel what Lott is feeling.
If Bones provided a skeleton, then Brighter Wounds has imbued it with blood and breath. The raw material took shape remotely at first—Lott now lives in Los Angeles, the others in New York—but came together as an album when the band did, in an intensive, 11-day studio residency in Manhattan. The distance allowed each member to make himself heard in the mix, and for space to emerge within these songs. Take "The Fool You Need," where Chang's rhythm is both elastic and mechanistic, Lott's voice flickers as he pledges unconditional love no matter the cost, and Bhatia closes with a lurching, circuitous flurry, the album’s only moment of acoustic guitar. And there's "Slowly" with its wide, stuttering gait, lyrically taking solace in the untruths we tell each other to insulate our loved ones from the universe's brutal indifference.
The sum total of this is perhaps best heard on "All Directions," the beating epicenter of Brighter Wounds. Elation bursts at the seams but grinds against heartache, ultimately winning out in a hail of soaring strings, roaring choirs and cascades of piano and prepared guitar lines. "Weren't we beautiful once?" Lott sings before answering, "I promise we were." This moment introduces the possibility of triumph after loss, life after death. The song that follows is gut-wrenching—the solemn "Aquatic" is Lott's dedication to the longtime companion he buried in May. But ultimately, it's about letting go: "It's time to quit the race, to carry nothing forward, for we owe it to ourselves to bury yesterday, leave it quaking in the earth.” The stillness is broken with a jolt by “Surrounded,” which sees shards of broken rhythm assembled into a raging procession. Refusing to repeat the steps of previous generations as he prepares to usher in a new one, Lott declares, “I am not my father's son.” A veiled reference to Lanterns’ “Alternate World” gives way to the album’s most violent moment: an accumulation of Chang’s thunderous drumming refracted through hissing amplifiers and digital noise.
"Young” follows in direct contradiction to the pandemonium. A post-script to the opening letter, Lott's singing goes transcendent over a mournful trio of horns as he takes on the voice of fate: "You're lucky to be young, with future in your form," and then, "Unlucky to be young, to start so near the end." This ambiguity delivers us to the closer, "Resurrection," where amid Trumpism and an unending bad-news barrage our host finds himself doubting everything from the power of protest to the refuge of faith to the functionality of gravity. But then he posits that instead of end times, we may be slogging through a transition: "Out of the darker day and into the brighter night!” returns amid a swarm of children’s voices. It's a nice bit of hard-fought optimism that nods to the album's contradictory title, but it also brings to mind an earlier line from Brighter Wounds: "Lie to me like I need you to do, so I can hear you say something that sounds right."