When I Get Home (Sony)
In its spirituality and refusal to be tied down to strict structures, in its expansive eye and preference for mood over specifics, in its consciousness raising and emphasis on a singular vision, in its confidence that the line between jazz and R&B is already rubbed thin and can only be further smudged, When I Get Home is more Alice Coltrane than Lauryn Hill, more post-Sorcerer Miles than post-4 Beyonce.
It is a heady album of immersion into blurry sounds and spiritual explorations, the journey being the destination. Or maybe it is that destination is there from the start and Solange Knowles is merely inviting you to cast your eye over the territory beneath your feet/ears and ask yourself not how did I get here but how do I make the most use of it.
In any case, directional guidance is nebulous. Interludes of black and feminist reinforcements, of a belief in a universal consciousness, a statement that you should “do nothing without intention”, may offer some signposts. Likewise, some of the lyrics clear away vagueness for moments of clarity about control and strength. But as with the vocals – both her lead and the crosscurrents of backing voices and samples – there is more ambiguity and drift than certainty.
Keyboards sometimes emerge as if from under deep pools of water and synthesisers can bulge and retract like puffer fish or take on the body of basslines but you’re never entirely clear where the ends are. Even when they are clear their chordal shapes can sometimes reposition the song practically without any other sign of change.
Rhythms can be fleeting, blushes of sounds more consistent than particular “organic” instruments like a surprising moment of wah-wah guitar. Drums can feel blunted and hazy at their extremities, Dreams a particular example of this, and propulsion has been almost entirely excised in favour of the idea of momentum that in Almeda hints at something grittier just out of reach. Tantalisingly out of reach too when by halfway through the song you almost beg for a rhythmic kick.
In fact, Almeda at a tick under four minutes is the longest song here and feels unfinished. In most cases a track is over while you are digesting its characteristics, discerning its intention. Yet the album feels much longer than its 39 minutes.
Which is another way of saying When I Get Home is more suggestion than imposition, the shifting sands of the sound not quite graspable, but really the absence of concrete tunes – of melodies that don’t just land but stick that landing in your brain – the potentially fatal flaw.
When it hypnotises, as in Time (Is) it can feel like a slowly rising tide. When it refuses to hold its outer edges, as in Beltway with its space synth runs and low-mix chants, it can hold you suspended in a liquid pod. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but track by track that suspension becomes a drag on your progress that isn’t a quagmire but certainly isn’t springing you free.
Even during the pending funk of Way To The Show the bounce is low impact, the movement a head nod not a hip cut, while Sound Of Rain (which is a bit like early ‘80s Roxy Music merged with mid-70s Stevie Wonder) accompanies you rather than directing you.
The reference to Alice Coltrane earlier was not a throwaway as Knowles’ guiding principles here feel closely aligned with the devotional and borderless nature of that towering figure of transcendental jazz. But unless she is prepared to wholly commit to that level of abandonment/freedom, Knowles still needs to bring the tunes. More than she has done here.