At War With Walls & Mazes, the first album from composer Ryan Lott’s Son Lux alias, stood as an intriguing kaleidoscope of sounds, influences and traditions. Its contents ranged from achingly intimate moments of unadorned vocals to booming orchestral swells, and did so in a way that eluded easy classification. Was Lott a singer-songwriter whose arrangements tended toward the experimental and baroque, or a composer who occasionally dabbled in pop structures? My own opinions on this album shifted after reading Nico Muhly — himself no stranger to that interstitial space — expound on Lott’s work in a Guardian essay. After spending some time with the album, I’d tended toward the first interpretation; but Muhly’s essay suggested another aspect to his music — a greater sense of an underlying structure. Since then, I’ve found myself regarding Lott’s music with a greater fascination: densely made yet ethereal work that falls somewhere between Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz and Osvaldo Golijov’s Ayre.
We Are Rising is a very different beast than At War.... The high point of Lott’s earlier album may well have been “Stand,” which repeatedly shifted gears from subdued confessionals to towering operatic climaxes. We Are Rising was written and recorded over the course of a month (and documented for NPR). As such, it’s a bit more on the pop side of things: Lott structuring these nine songs in circular, cyclical ways, applying his conversational style of singing to brief phrases, repeated again and again.
Still, Lott’s aim here isn’t to lull the listener into some sort of narcotic state. Throughout We Are Rising, he adds jarring moments: the piercing flute that punctuates “Rising,” the squalling vocal effects that open “Claws,” and the sharp sound that repeatedly comes around on “Rebuild.” I say “sound” because it isn’t always clear what is being played here: Lott’s arrangements and treatments blend the analog and the digital, the stringed and the percussive. The opening moments of opener “Flickers” sound like a pocket symphony warming up; this gives way to Lott’s quiet vocals, then to a surging crescendo. And yet from there, Lott heads into something that’s almost verse-chorus-verse territory; once he’s established a mood, he’s just as willing to upend it.
So, is it fun to actually listen to? Yes, for the most part. Lott’s vocals abound with a sense of yearning (and sometimes a sense of wonder), and he utilizes them judiciously, as one more instrument at his command. It’s a bit more confined in its scope than At War…, but also functions as a more cohesive whole. And when all of Lott’s musical aspects converge — as on the slow-burning, dynamically rich “Leave the Riches” — the results are rewarding.