“How do you do music?” Porter Robinson asks on ‘Musician’, the latest single to arrive from ‘Nurture’. “Well, it’s easy: you just face your fears and you become your heroes.” He’s being deliberately glib. After catapulting to the mainstream in 2010, the electro-house boy wonder is no stranger to the freefall of fame and the tough reality of creative life, forever contending with doubts: “Isn’t it time you get a job?”
Robinson’s had a job since his teens, actually – producing some of the previous decade’s biggest dance hits, DJing alongside Skrillex and releasing tracks like ‘Say My Name’, ‘Language’, and ‘Shelter’ with Madeon. But while his 2014 debut album ‘Worlds’ stepped away from the superstar dance scene towards Robinson’s own mellowed-out melodies, its immediate success only propagated the pressure he’d begun to feel.
Add the emotional fallout of a swift rise to fame, along with his brother’s serious cancer diagnosis, and conditions haven’t exactly been ripe for creativity. ‘Nurture’, Robinson’s second record, is seven years in the making.
To escape the squared-off beats of the club DJ, Robinson gave himself a creative inch on ‘Worlds’ – and on ‘Nurture’ he takes a mile. Is it an electro-pop record? Film score? Ambient playlist? Video game theme tune? Motivational app? David Attenborough clip? LCD Soundsystem song?
An hour-long collage of live instruments (piano, guitar, violin), multimedia samples, natural and digital vocals, and earnest, heartfelt lyrics, ‘Nurture’ is far more material and down-to-earth than its escapist predecessor. ‘Musician’ and ‘Look at the Sky’ fulfil the big pop single quota. Generally, though, the music forges its own playful major-key path, often ignoring the borders of each track: an album swathed in its own comforting soundscape of film, video games, birdsong, and vocal alter-egos.
Though not quite the vocal pyrotechnics of Caroline Polachek or A.G. Cook – more in the realm of Hellogoodbye or Passion Pit – Robinson has fun digitally replicating voices and playing with their interaction, between real and artificial, external and internal. His different vocal personas afford a degree of separation from personal pain, and he carefully chooses the moments when his natural voice bleeds through the artifice. On ‘Blossom’, a natural/digital duet, his Vocaloid partner drops away to leave Robinson confessing, “it’s just that I love you”.
But despite its smooth, space-age autotune, ‘Nurture’ stammers with retro tech glitches: white noise, jammed cassettes, vinyl crackles, scratched CDs. The keyboard hiccups of ‘dullscythe’ last so long you wonder if there’s something up with your streaming connection after all, while ‘Sweet Time’ really does take its sweet time, like an interminable slo-mo sports montage.
From there the rest of the album steadies, and slips into ambient playlist material. ‘Nurture’ is too long, overindulging its collaged chaos so that important moments get lost, and you mistakenly begin to try and make sense of the mess.
This chaos is meant to be felt, not figured out. At his best, Robinson articulates the overwhelming input of modern technology, the mental toll of a demanding sprawl of media and culture, and the countering relief of happiness and love. Enormously heartfelt it may be, but a pop record can’t ever be good without some heart, and while ‘Nurture’ may not pound at 128BPM, its flurry of styles and samples at least ensures there’s no real danger of flat-lining.
READ MORE: Porter Robinson interviewed