A few weeks ago I wrote about desert island music and added an entry to the list of albums I would want to listen while avoiding smoke monsters, brooding actors and plot holes on a primitive paradise. While making such a bold proclamation, I did not expect that there would be two such albums released within a month of each other since I hadn’t had any challengers to my list since 2004. And as much as I like hip-hop, I haven’t had such an album crack that list.
That trend may continue, because to classify This Is Our Science as hip-hop is to paint with broad strokes. Any time I read a comparison of Astronautalis to Marshall Mathers, it makes me want to sneak up behind the blogger at a coffee shop and rap their knuckles with a biscotti. It is true that Andy Bothwell got his start as a battle rapper a decade and a half ago, but as Astronautalis, he has cultivated a fan base with energetic live shows and freestyle rapping and developing a sound that defies genres. The latest release harnesses this energy, yet betrays a level of weariness in Bothwell’s voice; all while taking the hip-hop genre and turning it on its head.
When the album opens with “The River, The Woods,” Astronautalis’ gravelly staccato rhymes fire shots into the listener’s eardrums. The backdrop to his lyrical artistry is more than just drum-and-bass beats with a full band playing guitar, drums, piano and keyboards. The album keeps pace while Bothwell tells the stories of his personal experiences and shifts between crooning and rapping. Just when you start to key in on the sound, you are thrown a changeup with a piano accompanied back-alley bar ballad “Measure The Globe.”
To keep the baseball analogy going, Bothwell treats this release like a veteran pitcher, relying on guile and a multitude of different looks he can give to keep listeners guessing what the next song holds in store for them. There are the stalwarts of references to dead scientists, vagabond tales from the road, falling victim to lust, and guest vocalists to add depth to each track. Most noteworthy of these are Sims’ down-tempo rhymes on the soldier’s death march, “Thomas Jefferson” and indie rock darling Tegan Quinn on the undeniably pop track, “Contrails.” Finally, just to really confuse everyone, he dons the mantle of the bible-thumping evangelist in “Holy Water” complete with heavy sighs and ghost-like wails in the background.
The real struggle I have with this album is how to illustrate its richness. When reaching the penultimate track, “Secrets On Our Lips,” a perfect classic rock ballad, Astronautalis shows a grandness of scope that is impossible to translate to words. Just when he takes your breath away with the song, he gives the listener a chance to regroup with the final tale of the road, “The Curse,” which perfectly captures the witching hour of an after party when “everyone who’s drinking is already drunk or sleeping/everyone who isn’t is just too political to talk to” and reminds me of every party where I happened to still be awake at 3 am. That is the power of storytelling.
To describe This Is Our Science is like trying to show someone who has never been to the Grand Canyon a photograph of it and saying: “Yeah? Pretty big, huh?” I could scour a thesaurus and take several years of writing classes and it would be impossible to do it justice. So I turn the responsibility over to you to go out and listen for yourself and decide if I am crazy to want to add two new albums to my desert island library.
Or if bloggers need to file a restraining order to keep me 50 feet away from all Starbucks locations.