Sometimes the most exciting music to listen to is also the hardest to classify. The deconstruction of genre and form is a difficult process to master, and we should celebrate artists who have put the time and energy into this time-consuming craft. It’s appropriate that you would find this sort of idiosyncratic harvesting of sound experimentation and music scholarship in the most dedicated of home recording savants, who spend most of their waking hours swirling in a world of personal music.
Yves Jarvis is one of those artists. Even a quick listen to his new album “The Same But By Different Means” might break down some of those genre barriers you thought were so set in stone. Ranging from lo-fi soul and pastoral folk to ambient soundscapes and D’Angelo homage, Jarvis curates an atmosphere that’s ever-changing and always full of surprises. He fleshes out his most current song cycle by displaying an obvious talent for production and a penchant for delivering the unexpected. On “The Same But By Different Means,” the excitement of discovery and the anxiety of change and impermanence swell and mix in equal measure, curating a hard-won acceptance of our oversaturated and quickly moving world.
The album begins with “To Say That Is Easy,” a slow-burning gospel fadeout from the first moment it hits your ears. At first, its gentle swell of atmosphere sits just behind Jarvis’ stellar harmonies, flickering and fading enough to suggest that the song that might just burn out at any second. When the organ and backbeat come in, it feels nothing short of an affirmation of change and dissolution, catapulting the listener up on a gentle cloud above the quickening energy of the world.
There is a part in the story “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges where the narrator is standing in a garden and suddenly senses the presence of all possible choices, past and present, all coexisting together. The paths we didn’t take are now all suddenly real and omnipresent in every reality. The word that Borges uses to describe this sensation is pullulation, which means a teeming, swarming, or multiplying. The sense of time and multiplicity in Jarvis’ album is oddly similar, as if we was tapping into the omnipresence of time and history throughout each song, which swirls along in the confusing ether of the present moment.
For now I’m going to lend Jarvis’ work a genre name and call it post-soul. The name is inspired by the sense of history and cultural inheritance in Jarvis’ songs, which also coexists with his unique ability to cut up, alter, and question the truth of that same inheritance. His refusal to craft his songs into tight, paint-by-numbers pop songs can be jarring but ultimately stimulating for the listener, who learns to expect the unexpected throughout the album.
What makes “The Same But By Different Means” and Jarvis so interesting in general is the way he incorporates pop elements of the past into his songs while also subtly deconstructing their place in a typical verse-chorus format. The ambience, along with the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle shifts of mood in each song, are the constants here. Instead of a group of dependable songs we get a smorgasbord of ideas, ruminations, and wanderings, more the result of the media-saturated, attention-deprived world we live in than a slick professional package of feel-good tracks.
Even the songs that Jarvis chose to turn into videos aren’t the obvious singles from the album. “Talking or Listening” and “Fruits of Disillusion” are both oblique, wandering meditations. The best candidate, “That Don’t Make It So,” is paired with a video that obviously required the least effort (Jarvis dancing and grooving in front of a green screen and in various urban areas), like it was a last-second project that was thrown together.
Light plays a big part in Jarvis’ videos, finding an analogue in the flecks and strands of ambience that swirl in and out of his work. When a strong melody breaks through the mix, it’s as if the sun has emerged from a thick blanket of clouds.
“Fruits of Disillusion” is a great example of this. Wandering organ and spectral tones fly around and suggest the scattering plumes of cloud on a morning horizon. In the video, Jarvis stands on a small island clutching a microphone, singing over this collage of sounds. In other parts he wanders he wanders in a lush field or hops from rock to rock in a forest. Light flickers into the video at times, sometimes washing it out in reds and purples or scattering in ghostly images. The wandering, almost dreamlike consciousness is his way of dealing with change:
“Guess the fruit of disillusion is in season
But if it’s not thought through
Take a moment or two and just try to gauge this constant change”
Another video, “Talking or Listening?”, circles a ruminating Jarvis in an apartment. Bright beams of light filter in through the window, and off in the corner you can see someone lying in the bed and faced away from the camera. It’s unclear whether Jarvis is talking to that person or to everyone, but the intensely personal world of his music almost makes it sound like he’s asking himself rhetorical questions, and that this situation is a minor respite from the internal journey he feels bound to.
His music finds another analogue in the art of collage, a form that follows similar patterns to Jarvis’ music. When I first heard “The Same But By Different Means,” I had the sense of Jarvis with the history of pop and soul music spread out in front of him. Using scissors and a stick of glue, he was cutting out bits and pieces of melodies, harmony, and rhythm, creating a collage of sound that was at once personal but also vaguely familiar.
After a few songs, you can clearly see one of the major themes that runs through the work of Yves Jarvis: constant change. This plays into everything from his searching lyrics to the obsessive, quickly moving feel of Jarvis’ production. There is even a song on the album called “Constant Change,” where he distorts his voice as if trying rewind tape by hand even as the music goes stubbornly on.
In many ways Jarvis’ music is reminiscent of Frank Ocean, who also curates a collage-like atmosphere in his productions, deftly cutting and shifting songs so that they feel like artfully positioned approximations of pop music itself. Jarvis’ music isn’t nearly as glossy or full of spectacular shifts of mood as Ocean’s, never hitting the heights of gospel bliss that a song such as “Godspeed” did. This can also be a strength for Jarvis, giving his music an intimate, whisper-in-your-ear feel that this record rarely lets slip away.
The last song on the record, “The Truth”, feels like a surrender. Jarvis’ muttered, spoken-word lyrics are difficult to understand under the constant thrum of guitar and ambience and the occasional voice samples which reference – you guessed it – change. It’s like his stream of consciousness barely under the surface of waking life, one filled with sound and distractions and movement. But ultimately the song doesn’t feel scattered or sad. It seems to find peace by just existing inside of the messy pullulation of the world.