That this album by Joel Wastberg AKA sir Was is his debut album as a solo artist is almost inconceivable, accomplished that it is.
His background as a multi-instrumentalist gun for hire for the likes of José Gonzalez (both in solo guise and as a member of Junip) appears to have been a catalyst to finally developing and creating his own works. There’s an air of both anxiety and aspiration contained within, and one gets the sense that its creation was very much an exercise in catharthis.
It’s an impossible album to pigeonhole, which is almost always the mark of work that will stand the test of time, though its basecamp is most certainly in Hip-Hop, with no shortage of heavy-hitting beats, and some subtle (and not-so-subtle) samples, found sounds and lo-fi field recordings.
It’s an exceptionally contemporary sound, considering it comprises of a plethora of vintage sounds, samples and instruments, though there’s more than enough to keep your average techy nerd grinning from ear to ear. It’s a delicate balance, and one that’s near perfectly exectuted.
The production values are so complex, so multi-faceted and diverse, that it’s easy to forget at times that essentially, Wastberg is a songwriter, in the main. Verses are often sung in a monotone delivery that could almost be derived, in some ways, from Gregorian Chant, along with harmonies that share DNA with Doo-Wop, and softly sung uninflected melodies that are deceptively seductive and memorable.
Lyrically, it’s a very straightforward and earnest album, with Wastberg’s own take on themes of love, loss, wonderment and the human condition, and there’s not a great deal in the way of cryptic or arbitrary ambiguity to be found here. The mystique is in the accompanying soundtrack, which is where you’ll find your Easter Eggs, listen after listen, guaranteed, though at no point does it ever feel overproduced.
The majority of tracks are slow burning, introduced by field recordings of Birdsong, Poetry Readings, Church Bells, Bagpipes and busking Harmonica players, to name but a few. By midway through any given track however, you’re ensconced in a warm, dense vortex that wants you to stay put and listen, and then listen again…and again; I defy you to have the willpower turn it off before the end – it’s a complete unit, and it demands your attention.
This might be the first, but it won’t be the last you’ll hear of sir Was.
Digging a Tunnel is out 10th March 2017 on City Slang.