Review Summary: Has 2023 failed New Age? André 3000, Caroline Polachek and – Mary Lattimore
You could say the same for any number of genres, but 2023 has been an outright unfortunate year for New Age – not because it has yielded an especially bad crop of albums (between lovely new music from Cicada, Virginia Astley and Hinako Omori, Takashi Kokubo's oneiric collaboration with Andrea Esperti, and a welcome compilation of Dream Dolphin's ambient classics, it certainly hasn't!), but because the two single most significant events of its year – of recent years altogether! – have had an unhelpful bearing on its optics. The first of these is hardly at any fault of its own: André 3000 surprise renaissance as a flute-wielding spiritualist has done nothing worse than posit a glaringly visible hard sell. This comes through an unfortunate combination of unwieldy mass and massive overrepresentation in the press, who have taken a practically deferential approach tinged with a cloying whiff of celebrity exceptionalism. For those who go well out of their way to dig into it, there's a perfectly good record under all that! For the rest of the world, it's an oversized reminder of the sub-zero interest they have interest in that mystical woo-woo shit
, with the cynical sense of being platformed by writers paid to write about the artist above the music: practically the last qualities you want in a record that might otherwise have posited a rare gateway opportunity (though take my cynicism with a pinch of salt – it may be compiled from a number of verbatim reactions, but the album's marginal-but-real chart impact is encouraging; it will be interesting to see whether it translates into more than an André-centred fad).
The case for André 3000 failing the genre may be chiefly epimusical, but the same cannot be said of Caroline Polachek's Desire, I Want To Turn Into You
. With its lyricism and a minority quotient of its stylistic palette rooted in New Age mystique, Polachek tapped into a potentially shrewd means to knuckle down on her market as the mainstream's artsy darling - but her most ethereal chord progressions and dalliances with the supernatural play out as airless and contrived. The shrinkwrap-architecture of PC Music alumnus Danny L. Harle proves a godawful fit for the air of expanse and wonder that New Age lives and dies on: any hint of the sublime wilts under his artifice, and Polachek's attempts to weave her own enchantments are more often distant and pretentious ("Billions", "Blood and Butter") than earnestly compelling ("Hopedrunk Everasking"), all of which has a particularly unflattering look placed cheek-by-jowl with piteously thin acts of genre tourism ("Sunset") or lowest-common-denominator pop cliches ("Welcome to My Island"). Polachek's New Age is at best a disposable novelty, and at worst obnoxious clutter. The prospect of the sound making a mainstream comeback in earnest has been all but unthinkable ever since Enya's ubiquity-sized bubble burst, and it's practically groan-inducing to hear the opportunity squandered on a record this conceited and overcooked.
Now, Mary Lattimore's lovely new record Goodbye, Hotel Arkada
was never going to fix New Age's crippling optical setbacks single-handedly: despite a list of features stacked with the likes of Rachel Goswell (Slowdive), Lol Tolhurst (ex-The Cure) and Roy Montgomery, its public profile is nowhere near sufficient for this. Her luminous harp melodies and swirling weave of background textures were always destined for a more intimate experience than reflections on their generalised target audience or dissemination strategies can do justice to, but hold my beer for a moment and imagine the converse: rather than frame these six stately pieces as a symptom of wherever-new-age-is-supposedly-at-right-now, treat them instead as an antidote
to genre disaffection and tell me if you can think of a cleaner or more direct means to set that particular record straight.
Goodbye, Hotel Arkada
is full of sounds so straightforwardly gorgeous, so pure, and so immediate
to absorb that they expunge the standard reservations over New Age – concept music, incense muzak, spa fodder, pretentious mysticism – like an open window in the most pungent retirement home. These pieces are instantly evocative, from the transportive allure that underpins "Arrivederci"'s Mediaeval trappings to the ethereal brilliance of Rachel Goswell's supporting vocal on the sublime closer "Yesterday's Parties", but they're also sophisticated where it counts: my personal highlight "Horses, Glossy On The Hill" finds itself augmented by a tangled series of reverse effects, delays and/or overdubs that clutter the track not one bit while augmenting the grip of its central motif considerably. The song's appeal, as with anything else on this album, is gloriously intuitive, too evocative to sit demurely in the background, too beautiful to be bland.
The album feels wonderfully grounded as such, and is ideally placed as an ambassador for the open-heartedness, peace, and healing that are as key to New Age as its otherworldly mystique. Those qualities that have left it wide open to cynical indifference from without and are easily jeopardised from tepid mediocrity from within, be it Polachek's tepid fluff or the straw mixtape played at the straw spa you would struggle to locate on a map despite having referenced umpteen times. Peace in the arts does not
sell outside of reactionary hate-your-hate narratives, hence why New Age is routinely ignored by a press circuit that applauds the most facile representations of angst, social decline, ennui, nostalgia, personal development, flatulent experimentation, and romantic ineptitude – the struggle
behind these qualities is apparently sufficient for them to the landing where mere bliss fails to inspire the same engagement.
Translation: New Age lacks the cheap thrills and easy narratives to seduce a faceless audience, yet the affect of Lattimore's compositions is so effortlessly specific that this barrier flies out of the window along with the thought for anything beyond a one-to-one listening experience. There's something to that sense of these pieces feeling personally exclusive to whoever tunes into them: I don't necessarily think New Age needs
a seat at the populist table to find its listenership but this makes it all the more regrettable for floating misconceptions of artistry and authenticity to deter anyone for whom the likes of Lattimore make such cleansing sounds for such precious moments.