- The group's first album in 12 years is beautiful, but too often lacks subtlety.
- You could be forgiven for assuming The Cinematic Orchestra are promoting a new self-help book or religious cult rather than a new record. "The prerequisite of everything in life is belief, both good and bad," collaborator Dominic Smith mused recently. The collective's founder, Jason Swinscoe, outlined his mission in a 2016 interview: "It's not so much about personal belief, it's more about putting a question out there: 'What do we believe in?'" (Swinscoe, perhaps channeling parental wisdom, thinks we should believe in "ourselves.") This is the lofty premise for To Believe, The Cinematic Orchestra's first full-length in 12 years. The album's seven sprawling compositions offer plaintive strings, warm piano and honeyed vocals, all polished to perfection, with the aim of making a capital-s statement about self-love.
Despite being once known for inventive jazz sampling, Swinscoe acknowledges his group's prevailing legacy is the affecting, slightly mawkish 2007 single "To Build A Home." Despite the requisite distance every artist with a massively popular tune seems to affect—"I feel I'm shackled to that tune for the rest of my life," he's said—Swinscoe has clearly chosen the song's formula of sentimental balladry on his subsequent output, including To Believe.
To Believe draws from "To Build A Home"'s symphonic excess—why choose between a sweeping violin section, elegiac horns and twinkling xylophone? On "Wait For Now/Leave The World," The Cinematic Orchestra spread it all on thick, and that's before the song disintegrates into a Steve Reichian outro. These tracks are inarguably beautiful—12 painstaking years of writing and scrapping an entire album, then writing another one, does not leave much room for error—but the full-sounding arrangements crowd out the most touching moments, leaving little room for the listener to digest its message. The closer, "A Promise," features the impressive falsetto of Heidi Vogel, but it quickly gets buried by a crescendo of strings with an almost hysterical level of vibrato.
Lyrically, the record traffics in overwrought, high-minded concepts. "In this fantasy / Everyone is someone to believe," sings the jazz vocalist Grey Reverend on "Zero One/This Fantasy." The evocative depth in his voice fails to mask the prosaic lyrical themes. The vague concept of "belief" seems to be a stand in for any number of self-help pathways. Organized religion is most blatantly present here, but the transcendent power of romance also has its turn on "Wait For Love/Leave The World." It's a valiant effort at lyricism that matches the drama of its backing track, but its tendency to address the listener directly feels patronizing.
That's all the more disappointing because The Cinematic Orchestra has done so much better with the same source materials. It's hard not to pit "A Caged Bird/Imitations Of Life," featuring Roots Manuva, against one of the group's most profound tracks, "All Things To All Men." On that 2002 track, Manuva's booming vocal cut through the heart of institutionalized racism and poverty. By contrast, "A Caged Bird/Imitations Of Life" feels preachy and detached, like a therapist telling a client that getting more sleep will cure their depression: "Why would you hide from yourself? / Belief is here to find you."
The album is better when it lets its collaborators shine. On the title track, Moses Sumney leads with his inimitable, soulful rasp, backed only by a sparse piano progression and slow strings. Similarly, the album's purely instrumental compositions work well. "Lessons" builds at a galloping pace, redolent of Philip Glass's taut, repetitive style, while "The Workers Of Art" starts with spartan electronica before swelling to an emotional finale. Both show Swinscoe's talent as a composer, and hint at more film scores in his future (his last proper release was a film score to the Disney flamingo documentary The Crimson Wing). Swinscoe has a knack for both producing lush orchestral movements and picking worthy collaborators. On To Believe, they are unfortunately not more than the sum of their parts.
01. To Believe feat. Moses Sumney
02. A Caged Bird/Imitations Of Life feat. Roots Manuva
04. Wait For Now/Leave The World feat. Tawiah
05. The Workers Of Art
06. Zero One/This Fantasy feat. Grey Reverend
07. A Promise feat. Heidi Vogel