Kwes.’ new album, ilp., is an immersive experience. It begins with “purplehands”, a soundscape created out of found and captured sounds that have been processed and manipulated, and then added to with lingering musical notes. An aural walk in an urban park, complete with honking geese and hissing swans, this track morphs to become a song that is laced with memory and experiences.
Something of a protégé, Kwes., or Kwesi Sey, has worked with such musical luminaries as Bobby Womack, Damon Albarn and Micachu. However, in a touch that signifies this artist’s commitment to the personal and private, the biographical material accompanying this release informs us that his musical journey was kickstarted by a gift of a keyboard from his grandmother. A keyboard that he still uses. I find this emphasis entirely appropriate: ilp. is an album of personal ballads. Touching, intimate, engaging but always surprising and intuitively odd, each track is like a memento. Backwards echoes and unconventional multilayering effects offset charming and traditionally framed tunes that are sung, sometimes in a crooning, sometimes in a soulful voice. Behind classic phrasing and homespun lyrics, a palette of tampered, tempered and distorted sounds make up the musical accompaniment. Whether it is the childhood sweetheart recollections of “rollerblades”; the elegant and apparently analogous songwriting of “cablecar”; or the gospel clap and soulful elegy to an out of reach beauty that is “flower” — this combination of both “pop and mad sounds” delivers an album that is both highly listenable and unexpectedly strange, without ever becoming overly obtuse.
With influences as wide-ranging as Scott Walker, Missy Elliot, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell and Deerhoof, Kwes. has a firm understanding of both the craft of songwriting and the need to avoid the mundane. Labeling his musical project as “freepop”, he is clearly determined to avoid the limitations of established genres. Essentially though — and this comes across in his music — he describes himself as being “just a lover of music”.
Memory is one of the most important and fundamental drivers of creative expression. However, the key role it plays is also centrally dictated by the whimsical and fugitive nature of recollection. In his novel, Vie d’Henry Brulard, the French novelist Henri Stendhal articulates the difficulties inherent in recapturing autobiographical detail and memories from years gone by. Those discoveries that “are like great fragments of fresco on a wall, which, long forgotten, reappear suddenly, and by the side of these well-preserved fragments… great gaps where there’s nothing to be seen…” Kwes. has understood this and seeks to recreate, or better still evoke, the nature of memory by conjuring a palimpsestic record at the core of which is an understanding of the role of the sentimental in our relationship with the past.
It is the sentimental that fills in those missing segments and allows for the partial to become apparently whole. Bonded to his own past of parents’ voices, of his father playing jazz records whilst his mother watched Coronation Street, and their playful arguments, Kwes. makes music that is unashamedly domestic in its perspectives but powerfully universal in its aims. Almost novelistic in intent, though without a direct narrative thread, ilp. is both an engram and an ode: it is his memory, observation and interpretation of love and family life. There is innocence here, but it is an innocence recalled from a position of sophisticated understanding for the purpose of pleasure.