First Listen: Son Lux, 'Lanterns'

NPR icon by Robin Hilton
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Tim Navis

Ryan Lott, the principal creative force behind Son Lux, is a classically trained musician well-studied in the vast intricacies of theory, composition and orchestration. As a student at Indiana University in the late '90s he studied piano under renowned pianist Jeremy Denk (among others) and, after graduating, spent several years writing songs for TV ads and various dance companies in New York. But when he wasn't scoring beer and car commercials, Lott quietly, methodically pieced together his breathtaking debut as Son Lux, 2008's At War With Walls & Mazes. It was a massive but brilliantly finessed mix of disjointed hip-hop beats, found sounds and vivid string arrangements.

Lott followed three years later with his second Son Lux album, We Are Rising, another conceptual, polyrhythmic adventure that, remarkably, he wrote and recorded in just four weeks. (We documented the whole process on All Songs Considered).

In the two years since, Lott has collaborated with Sufjan Stevens and the rapper Serengeti; he relocated briefly to Los Angeles where he worked on soundtracks and sound design for several films including Nathan Johnson's score for the 2012 sci-fi thriller Looper; and Lott has continued composing original work for dance companies. He's also signed with Joyful Noise for his third and most fully realized Son Lux album, Lanterns.

While At War With Walls & Mazes and We Are Rising were glittering, sometimes wildly adventurous albums, Lanterns is slicker, darker and less ornate. The beats are icier and spare, and the mix a little richer, nestled comfortably at the nexus of 21st-century R&B, hip-hop and synthpop. Lott's voice is fragile but fearless as he reflects on the fleeting, ephemeral nature of life, letting go of the past, and the mysteries of a possible dimension beyond the one we all inhabit.

Lanterns, which features mandolin master Chris Thile, Antlers singer Peter Silberman, multi-instrumentalist DM Stith and an all-star cast of other collaborators, includes some of Lott's most surprising and captivating moments as Son Lux. Check out the bone-rattling bass saxophones that drag just behind the beat on "Easy," or the crazed Munchkin chorus on "No Crimes." But for every dramatic flourish, Lanterns is equally restrained, with some of Son Lux's loveliest songs. The tear-jerker melody and gently moving piano lines on "Enough Of Our Machines" feel like a solemn dirge to the scourge of modern living, as Lott sings "I've had enough of our disease. I'll pick it up and I will walk away."

The music of Son Lux has always been slightly left-of-field, the product of a restless and formally trained artist bored with conventional chord patterns, familiar melodies and standardized beats. At times Lott's passion for pushing creative boundaries has led to music that might sound strange or even indecipherable to some audiences. But there's no question Lott is a gifted composer and Lanterns is his most arresting album to date.

Lanterns is out Oct. 29.

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