What is it about late night diners in summer？ Populated by the last few dregs of the bar scene, the waitresses patiently smiling and herding drunks to their booths, keeping cups filled with slightly burnt coffee amid the tired stares and drunken laughter of people wolfing down whatever greasy concoction they think will best keep them from praying for death in the morning. It’s an atmosphere buzzing with the aftereffects of inebriation, the echo of pulsing club music still ringing in booze-addled ears, a warm respite from the frenetic energy of the crowds of bar-hoppers and club-goers. It’s an air conditioned refuge from the dank, humid world outside, a welcome cooldown before the inevitable stumble home, a refuge much like any of the hundred other diners in any given city, but a refuge nonetheless.
This is the atmosphere of Nocturnal Souls: cool, inviting, relaxed and yet at times slightly edgy in its nocturnal ambience. It’s a highly atmospheric release, nonchalant and breezy in mood, yet clearly finely tuned in execution. Chris Ward, after a string of mostly unremarkable, derivative releases, seems to have finally come into his element, tossing together elements of funk, d&b, trip-hop and downtempo with a refreshing subtlety and chilled-out confidence that make each track a soothing earworm that never really feels the need to turn into anything groundbreaking.
Opener Never Letting Go is a standout example of the success of this formula: the muted psychedelic tones, Chris’ smooth-jazz falsetto, the dream-like delay effects all work effortlessly towards the summer-as-aesthetic mood that has been Tropics’ oeuvre since day one. The album revels in this aesthetic, although it plays up the after-dark, downtempo mood, eschewing the sunny, lo-fi fuzziness that has become a chillwave cliché and instead utilizing a polished, slick, urban sound, embracing the pop sensibilities in the laid-back accessibility of the music. It is this neon atmosphere that makes the album so engaging, and it is an atmosphere Chris is clearly adept at capturing.
But while it’s clear that Chris has moved beyond being a bedroom Toro Y Moi acolyte (although the influence is still very apparent), Nocturnal Souls never seems to assert itself in any meaningful sense, never really seeking to be anything other than a hyper-chill little piece of psychedelia best played on a nighttime beach somewhere. After listening several times I struggle to remember all but a select few standout moments in the entire album. This isn’t to say that the album is mediocre; while it does tend to coast on dreamy atmospherics without ever really saying anything, the atmosphere is so well executed, and so engaging when it is allowed to take flight (as on the tripped out Restless) that there’s never a moment when the music’s anything less than enjoyable. And honestly, when it’s this pretty, how much do you care if it’s saying anything meaningful？