Maps – Vicissitude (Mute)
2xLP / CD / DL
Released 8th July 2013
Northampton electrogaze pioneer returns after a four year break with his third album for Mute – and don’t worry, we had to look it up too…
You might – or might not – remember Maps. Back in 2007, debut album “We Can Create” burst into the early summer with a truckload of infectious tunes and lush electronic arrangements. It got the sort of reviews labels dream about; fired off a succession of brilliant singles on knowingly covetable ten inch vinyl and was briefly favourite for the Mercury Prize, losing out to Nu-Rave (remember that?) scene leaders Klaxons in the end but still promising a bright future ahead for James Chapman. Then 2007 became 2008 and 2009, and any number of bands appeared mixing dreampop templates with contemporary electronics and quietly reflective vocals – there were echoes of Maps in the xx’s 2009 debut for instance which went on to win the Mercury in 2010.
Yet while electronic introspection appeared to be going mainstream, Chapman’s own second album barely registered on musical radars. There’s the (now sadly even more commonplace) media fixation with new acts barely out of the rehearsal room, meaning second albums can get all too easily sidelined; there’s the fact that these were the dying days of Mute’s EMI dalliance and there was little in the way of promotion or physical single releases (and no single release at all for standout electropop gem “Everything Is Shattering”, which I described in a review at the time as the best OMD song OMD never wrote and was proven right a year later when the synth veterans’ return-to-form “History Of Modern Part 1” arrived sounding exactly like it). And to be fair, “Turning The Mind” wasn’t an easy listen – stripped of the sonic cathedrals and heavily influenced by German techno it was a trip through the darkest parts of what was clearly a very troubled time for Chapman, who subsequently disappeared almost entirely from the music scene.
Not many album title announcements have you scrabbling for the dictionary but this one did (and it wasn’t just me): “the quality or state of being changeable; natural change or mutation visible in nature or in human affairs; a favourable or unfavourable event or situation that occurs by chance; a fluctuation of state or condition”. There’s been a lot of that, these past four years. Mute is of course independent once more, a place where Carter Tutti Void can sit alongside Erasure and Josh T Pearson; meanwhile back in the deliberate isolation of his Northampton bedroom Chapman set about rebuilding Maps via what he’s described in interviews as “lifestyle rearrangement”. Much like labelmate Pearson he leaves you in little doubt that this is his real life you’re listening to, and while he’s less specific with the details (thankfully – there was stuff on Josh T’s last album we seriously never needed to know) there’s still a slightly unsettling feeling of reading someone’s diary. The underlying message, though, is stated clearly in track two – “some of us were built to last”.
Musically, “Vicissitude” is bathed in echoes of a summer long ago, though not any one in particular. Closer to that sun-dazed debut than its shadowy successor; even closer, perhaps, to Chapman’s tentative earliest releases under the Maps name, and odd little things that would turn up on B-sides and the like. There are echoes of rave-era chillout sounds, half heard whispers and sweeping synth washes like the sun breaking through over last night’s debris. There are rhythms from the dance world, but warped, submerged – for example on the title track – into something calmer. And there are classic Maps-isms fans from those early days will recognise – an unexpected chord change midway through a bar, a simple theme given depth by repetition and subtle manipulation. The latter formed the backbone of his 2007 breakthrough single “It Will Find You”, whose DNA is all over “Heard Them Say” here with its wonderful muted electro coda; likewise the gorgeous “Left Behind” is a descendent of “Lost My Soul”. “You Will Find A Way” is beautiful, battle-scarred but at peace now, with warm washes of blurry colou: it’s grade A Maps pop genius up there with his very best. And if that all sounds just a little too nice, the dark and unsettling “Nicholas” rears its head at the half way point (or indeed end of side two, if you’re the sort of person who can’t resist a tastily packaged double vinyl. Good to have that back too).
The album closes – as indeed did both its predecessors – with a downbeat, thoughtful look at where things stand today. “I’d adjusted to the darkness, made my home within the night”. Not any more. Whatever happened to James Chapman these past four years has made him stronger – and he’s made a bloody good album out of it. If “We Can Create” was a wild, firework-splattered rush of love lost and found and “Turning the Mind” a bleak web of breakdowns and betrayals, “Vicissitude” again does roughly what it says on the tin – it walks out into the daylight, blinking and more than a little uncertain, aware that in that clear blue sky the clouds are still tinged black around the edges, but optimistic all the same. At the time this album was announced Britain was going through its coldest spring in living memory and we were wondering if we’d ever feel warm again; the week of its release is the sunniest we’ve seen in years. There’s got to be something in that.
You can stream the whole album here. The Susanne Sundfør remix up there is available as part of a bonus bundle if you buy the album here. A great talent in her own right, we caught one of Susanne’s sets at Great Escape this year – review here.