The bad news is that Jamie Lidell’s most soulful, weird, and ecstatic turn this year does not occur on Compass, the scruffy and bespectacled Brit’s fitfully soulful, weird, and ecstatic fourth album. In fact, it doesn’t happen on any record whatsoever; the good news is that you can hear it (and see it) for free at Beck.com. As part of the Record Club, wherein Mr. Hansen invites famous friends to cover classic albums in their entirety and posts the resulting videos, Lidell has a go at “Books of Moses,” originally an eerie a cappella gospel number from former Jefferson Airplane member Alexander “Skip” Spence’s lone lysergic-mystic ’60s album, Oar. While Beck dons Phil Spector shades and provides handclaps, furnace-bellied drummer James Gadson drops a hot beat (to be filed in his decades-wide C.V. alongside “Express Yourself” and “Use Me”) that at first dumbfounds Lidell (“Holy shit! That’s heavy”), but eventually inspires him to loop his leather-lung voice into innumerable layers, the makeshift group whipping up some Old Testament funk, at once sacred and profane.
“First of all, I never heard the record before,” Lidell tells me months later, his lanky frame casually slumped in the lobby of the Standard Hotel. We’re mere blocks from his new flat in Chelsea, New York City being his new home after a stint living in Berlin, which had become, in his estimation, “too hip for its own good—every other freak was a musician or graphic designer.” As he recalls, “Beck just went, ‘OK, here’s another really fucked-up psychedelic jam. Here, you sing it.’ ”
“It blew my mind, to be honest,” he adds, of the sessions that ultimately kickstarted his follow-up to 2008’s Jim. “It was humbling, really. It’s the stuff that makes music feel deeper than record sales. Which is what I’m about, I just want to know what it is. Seeing how Beck balances it, just how much love he has playing, just brought it back to me.” While a few days of recording in L.A. yielded but one finished album track (“Coma Chameleon”), the experience reinvigorated Lidell when he returned to NYC. “Beck inspired me to write fast. I went, ‘If he can write so quick, why don’t I just trust myself?’ I should be my own fan, I know it can be done.”
And so, rather than micromanage every single sound, Lidell worked loose and fast: “Compass ended up sounding like sketches filled in, but not all the way. I’ve been wanting to do that for ages. I tend to overdo things, ’cause I’m a bit of an idiot.” When not traversing the globe for Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor helped assemble the raw tracks. “And I really worked Chris,” Lidell says, chuckling. “I was a bit of a slave-driving asshole.”
Originally, Lidell’s name rang out in cutting-edge techno circles, due to his work alongside Christian Vogel as Super_Collider. But with 2005’s solo nod Multiply, Lidell went from muddling with his gear and making whiplash noise to fully embracing his ability to mimic the Innervisions-era vocal grandeur of Stevie Wonder (as well as other Motown earmarks). He pushed his laptop rig to the side and took center stage as a cagey soul singer instead. For the first three Compass tracks, he once again presents himself as a meticulous balladeer, rasping about cooking up some eggs for his honey and edging slightly into the ’80s with the satin-crinkling sheen of “She Needs Me.” But Compass is at its best when it sullies up Lidell’s orderly tendencies. Penultimate track “Big Drift” mixes a gritty dirge with Feist’s angelic backing vocal; closer “You See My Light” exemplifies such a push and pull. “I tried about 20 times to sing that really simple spiritual,” Lidell says. “I had it, I felt it, and I recorded it to my laptop. But after that, I was chasing it in the studio, so I ultimately used the first version. We had to erode everything to get it to the level of the scratch vocal.”
Appropriately enough for a record called Compass, everything hinges on the middle, which presents Lidell at his messiest. For the twitchy technology of “I Wanna Be Your Telephone,” he places the cleanest obscene phone call imaginable to Prince’s “Shockadelica.” Gadson’s snare and bark propel the J5 pop of “Enough’s Enough,” making Lidell’s “six-foot fool with a two-bit disguise” undeniably winsome. “You Are Waking” and “Coma Chameleon” roll in garage fuzz. And first single “The Ring” is his gnarliest moment since Super_Collider’s “It Won’t Be Long”: With its noisy, warped cacophony, it sounds like Tom Waits’s Bone Machine got ahold of Lidell’s white-soul schtick, gnawed on it, then spat it back out.
Celebrating the record’s imminent release a few weeks back at Bowery Ballroom, he looks gaudy and sweatless in a kaleidoscopic seersucker suit. Strutting and flapping around the stage, he is remarkably self-effacing, yet confident, and, above all else, playful, leaping at an elaborate drum setup and even brandishing a three-foot-tall cowbell. Before the sold-out crowd, he both apologizes for being sloppy with his three-man backing band and defends their off-the-cuff jamming onstage. Throughout, he is a consummate showman, balancing between the rough and the smooth.
Jamie Lidell plays the Music Hall of Williamsburg June 10