- Shackleton hits the reset button on a pared-back yet still dense album that highlights all his strengths.
- Shackleton's music has gone down so many rabbit holes that listening to it feels like entering a whole other dimension. All his musical tics—arcane instrumentation, strange time signatures, elliptical melodies—feel completely insular, existing in and referring only to the world he's already created. Each Shackleton record built on the foundation of the last, adding new elements like vocalists and organs, until the music became so ambitious it required an ensemble of musicians to play it. Departing Like Rivers, on the other hand, is purposefully absent of collaborators. There are fewer bells and whistles and no heavy concept. (In fact, Shackleton spends the album's liner notes playing down the record's meaning.) His first solo album since 2017 feels like a cinematic reboot, a return to familiar origins with a bigger budget and higher production values. Over an hour and seven knotty compositions, Shackleton revisits each of his past selves for a record that feels both humble and impossibly expansive.
Shackleton's post-Skull Disco discography has had a live, organic feeling—bright and discrete, if not exactly warm. Departing Like Rivers returns to the electronic soundscapes of records like Three EPs, with the familiar instrumentation (whirring organs, convulsing mallet percussion) woven in like layers of a tapestry. Old-school Shackleton fans should gravitate towards "The Turbulent Sea," which frantically underlines what sounds like French horn and glockenspiel with the kind of hedge-maze basslines that made records like his fabric 55 mix sound so sinister and unreal when they came out a decade ago.
Still, Shackleton is a different beast today than he was back then. Departing Like Rivers is a dense and sprawling listen, with three tracks that stretch over the ten-minute mark in a dizzy, disorienting zig-zag. On the 13-minute opener "Something Tells Me / Pour Out Like Water," the electronic layers curdle into a viscous atmosphere, like a tropical jungle nearing 100 percent humidity. Instead of working with vocalists, Shackleton dices and stretches vocal samples from British folk records, which have the same ghostly tremble and glow as the snippets on his older tracks. The hint at a folk tradition is one of the closest things we've come to a real-world musical reference on a Shackleton record, but they sound altered beyond recognition. What might have been portals to the outside world are transformed into the stuttering and post-verbal language that we've become so familiar with.
The lengthy tracks that open the record are followed by a series of shorter and more focused jams. It's easy to imagine the chorus of eerie disembodied voices and freewheeling basslines of "One Of Us Escaped," or the cyclone of repetitive melody, "Few Are Chosen," on a dark dance floor. Then again, something like "Shimmer The Fade" is as much a textural piece as a rhythmic one, its slowly unfurling knitting lulling you into a calm before the instruments shift focus and the mood turns to something more like a bad trip.
By freeing himself of constraints, collaborators and, most tellingly, ambition, Shackleton has made his most purely Shackleton record yet. In some ways, that makes it one of his best: he's playing to his strengths here, colouring inside the lines instead of stretching beyond them—even if those lines are labyrinthine and snaky compared to pretty much any other composer in contemporary electronic music. And despite the inward gaze, he's still moving forward. "The Light That Was Hidden" is one of his most straightforward tracks ever, with a defined structure and an arrangement that actually adds to the busy ensemble feeling of his band Tunes Of Negation.
I've always thought that the key to a Shackleton record was its final track. From the astounding "Something Has Got To Give" on Three EPs to the winding tripartite closer on Behind The Glass, these finales give us closure while carefully pointing to the future. And in the lineage of Shackleton closing tracks, "Transformed Into Love" is a towering achievement: it's almost tantric in its teasing, repetitive groove, which becomes more dubbed-out and effects-laden over its 14 minutes. The melodies are complex, unsettling and often beautiful, ending the album on a typically ambiguous note. You're not quite sure what you just experienced, or what it means, but it's breathtaking while it happens, like any visit to Shackleton's peculiar world. And that world has rarely sounded as fully realized as it does on Departing Like Rivers, which feels a bit like a greatest hits composed of brand new tracks.
01. Something Tells Me / Pour Out Like Water
02. The Turbulent Sea
03. Shimmer, Then Fade
04. One Of Us Escaped
05. The Light That Was Hidden
06. Few Are Chosen
07. Transformed Into Love