Review Summary: hell is oneself / the other figures in it merely projections
In Dean Blunt's typically recondite fashion, Soul on Fire yields more the less i construe it as a distinct entity. It was less than a month ago - 28th August, or 29th if you reside in the antipodes - that he (probably) dropped his Muggy Vol. 1 mixtape on World Music Group, a foggy slow-slizzurp-drip of hynogogic beats, echoey gorgeously plaintive vocals, amateur guitar, deep web operatics, subterranean internet cable symphonics. What differentiated it from other Blunt projects was an unabashed emotional honesty, or at least a willingness to remove the arch facade and show things like vulnerability, confusion; this is an artist that usually hides susceptibility to any kind of trapping (political and personal) with the fervor of a paranoiac burying the family gold, leaving false trails along the way.
That his best work, I think, is when he opens up, or at least appears to, doesn't necessarily discount his output that comes after being mastered through fifteen layers of irony and distance - i love his Skywalker freestyle, set to the dulcet guitar tones of Kate Bush, as much as the next twentysomething slowly dying of odium disguised as ideology - but there is something undeniably smug and exhausting about it. In rare interviews he expresses a desire not to talk about his work, leaving it up to listener interpretation. So far so good. But he can't help himself, interspersing these comments about acerbic remarks about critics whose opinion he believes to be errant. While I'd love to chat to him at a dinner party, I'd be loathe to interview him; there is something callow bordering on insufferable about someone who wants to have their cake and eat it too, even if it is part of a facade, that manifested in some of his more provocative offerings.
Of which Soul on Fire might appear to be one. I don't think it is. I don't think the proximity of Muggy's release date and this one is incidental. They're companion albums that combined form a kind of earnest, matured statement about modern life that I've been waiting since BBF for him to recapture. And if it's structured in a difficult way requiring a Rust Cohle board of intersecting pin and string, well: this is a guy who sold toy cars filled with weed on ebay as a bit and created a sculpture for a gallery that set off a deafening sine noise if you dared stand closer than ten feet to it. Everyone's allowed their idiosyncrasies, especially when it makes them, y'know, them.
The album itself begins with an urgent orchestral sample, not unusual to Blunt, but crisper, more emotive than his previous attempts (Bruiser is the obvious analogy). Blunt dispassionately mutters non sequiturs churned through a cliche generator ("if you want to see me then it's lit / you ain't got a problem getting it / i ain't even gotta try that hard") while A$AP Rocky plays confused, incongruous hypeman. It would be comedic but Blunt's voice sounds so deadened, the inflections so broken, especially juxtaposed to A$AP's energy, that it's a weirdly bleak, affecting listen, especially when Blunt spits out "they just want to stop us getting rich" in a way that sounds... honestly? Self-loathing. It's a fascinating exercise in 3 vastly different modes being combined to reveal Blunt less as badass but extremely bad advertising salesman.
The rest of the short EP sounds nothing like the beginning: he murmurs similarly cryptic offerings over half-formed guitar licks, muddied keyboards and, on the closer, a sample of Metallica's "Battery". The effect is, as mentioned, disquieting, especially as his intonation slides from casual to listless to actively apathetic. I don't mean to suggest the album is torporous when the disconcerting effect makes it engaging, but this isn't a soul on fire so much as a soul subject to daily lashings of dry ice.
Compare it to Muggy Vol.1 and, in the same way one can't unsee an optical illusion, the entire perspective of the album shifts. Interestingly, both albums share a song title, NBA: in the former, a female voice rhapsodises "It's true i think of times we were together / a time where all i saw was forever" before continuing, convincing herself as much as her interlocutor "times changed. now things are better". On Soul on Fire, the lyrics conclude: "do you see who's looking out for me", delivered with an empty touch obviously, in Blunts monotone. Maybe the answer is no-one, but that's irrelevant because
On Muggy, Blunt communicates, stresses, worries about the past, opens up, confesses almost, but through a chorus of proxies. We don't hear it from his own voice, only projections of it, removed by cadence, inflections, style, even gender. There's safety in attributing honesty, subjection, worry - ***, humanity - through the anonymous lens of Various Artists. I suspect he knew that the project would be attributed to him, sure, but that just makes it sadder. Under his own moniker, Blunt refuses to engage in any honest, meaningful way; if he's delivering a "prank" with Soul on Fire, as he claims is his want, it falls flat in the light of Muggy. Suddenly the irony and the arcane deliver a higher sincerity of their own; if it's insincere, it's because he can't be. Is it self-regulation, regulation from a specific audience, a personal malaise, a hopelessness that requires a defense mechanism? It doesn't really matter. When your personas overtake your person and you can no longer distinguish which is which, that's a soul on fire.
I don't flatter myself that he'll read this manic, frantic diatribe and if he does i have no doubt he'd sneer at it and make some pithy remark. He can suck me. In the newest series of American Vandal, a character notes that this is the first generation that lives two lives, speaking of the internet. I don't think that's true. We all live an abundance of lives, adopt a persona, don masks and, to use a word Blunt would approve of, front, and we always have, but in our modern age all of our assorted acts become troubled, interconnecting and splicing until somewhere along the way we forget where we began. We're entitled our reinventions, but maybe we tarnish ourselves, an authenticity of identity, every time we pull the lever. I feel like Dean Blunt, more than any musician this decade, really understands what it's like to be alive in a weird, weird epoch, and understands that to address it you can only get weirder - and, in his own way, more honest -- to him, as well as us.