No one ever talks about the fourth record.
We’ve all heard plenty about the astonishing debut and the “difficult” sophomore release. But let’s pause for a moment to consider the role of album four in rock and roll history. A few key examples: Radiohead – Kid A, R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant, Talking Heads – Remain in Light, Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, David Bowie – Hunky Dory … you see where we’re going with this. Album four is an opportunity for artists to reinvent, and frequently revitalize, themselves. The willingness to abandon familiar work habits and signature sounds can be risky, but it’s often the difference between a safe, predictable career and a bold transformation that signals the beginning (to quote another pretty amazing fourth LP) of a new age for artist and audience alike.
When it came time to make the fourth Telekinesis album, drummer/songwriter/principal architect Michael Lerner found himself in a predicament that will sound familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the lore of rock bands. In just under five years, he had released three fantastic records— Telekinesis! (2009), 12 Desperate Straight Lines (2011), and Dormarion (2013)—each more ambitious than the last. He had toured all over the world, shared stages with great bands (Death Cab for Cutie, Portugal. The Man, Aimee Mann and Ted Leo’s The Both), and enthralled fans of his infectious, ebullient power pop. Newly married and happily ensconced in the home studio he’d assembled in his West Seattle basement, Lerner found himself asking the question that has haunted modestly successful bands down the ages: What do you do after the rock and roll dreams you had when you were 19 have come true? The obvious answer was to make another Telekinesis record—that was his job, after all, and he was grateful for it. So he got to work. It didn’t go well. At least not at first.
“I went down to the basement,” Lerner recalls, “and started playing the same chords I always play… I just felt like I’d exhausted everything I knew. I was not excited at all. I just could not make another power-pop album.”
He sought inspiration in music that bore little relation to the familiar Telekinesis sound, and soon found it in the swooning, synth-driven pop of early ’80s UK bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Glasgow’s The Blue Nile (whose 1982 debut album, A Walk Across the Rooftops, Lerner had been given by Merge honcho Mac McCaughan), as well as more up-tempo numbers like Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s 1977 disco master class “I Feel Love” and, even further afield, Drake’s 2013 summer jam “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” Though Lerner is a drummer with a strong affinity for loud electric guitars, he found himself irresistibly attracted to the powerful atmospheres stirred up by the gorgeously inorganic sounds and simple arrangements of these wildly disparate inspirations. A new idea began to take shape, as did a somewhat obsessive collection of old synthesizers and drum machines.
Lerner dedicated himself to learning the intricacies of antiquated keyboards with names like the Roland JX-10 (the very model Angelo Badalamenti used to com-pose the music for Twin Peaks), the Teenage Engineering OP-1, the Moog Sub Phatty, the Elektron Octatrack, and even a Speak & Spell. “If you buy a guitar,” observes Lerner, “people always say ‘oh, there’s a song in that guitar.’ That’s how it was for every piece of equipment I acquired over the last two years.” Finding the songs was one thing; making sense of the elaborate technical requirements that would allow him to sync the multiple generations of machinery with digital recording software was another. There were plenty of easier ways to go about the process, sending MIDI versions of the vintage sounds and letting a computer do the heavy lifting, but that would have missed the point. There was joy in getting his hands dirty; part of the process was to invent the process. It took months of diligent effort (“pulling my hair out, for real”), but when the literal and figurative dust settled, what emerged looked and sounded like a legitimate breakthrough. The previous three Telekinesis LPs had been recorded fast, on tape, in professional studios with accomplished producers—Chris Walla on the first two, Jim Eno on the third—at the helm. This new one had been painstakingly assembled by Lerner alone, working without a map, using an entirely unfamiliar palette of sounds, and discovering an entirely different tonal vocabulary in the process. And though the total running time is a tidy 33 minutes, it had taken what seemed like forever to get there (hence the album title).
And yet, for all the new methodology and instrumentation, the DNA of Ad Infinitum is oddly familiar. The melodic hooks that have endeared Telekinesis to the world of pop music aficionados are flagrantly front and center. The pinging pong of an instrumental figure on album opener “Falling (In Dreams)” sounds almost like a permission slip for Lerner to let loose with a soaring head voice in the chorus. It’s a chilling entrance to an album that soon veers into the much faster new-wave thrills of “Sylvia,” the ironically technology-averse retrofuturism of “In a Future World” (which sounds like the missing link between Speak & Spell-era Depeche Mode and the birth of Erasure), and onward. The hyperactive gem “Courtesy Phone” proves that no matter how many stylistic obstacles he places in his own path, Lerner’s knack for perfect power pop is irrepressible. But the high- energy dance rhythms of “It’s Not Yr Fault” and the gorgeous, McCartney II-esque polyphony of “Ad Infinitum Pt. 1” are totally unprecedented in the Telekinesis oeuvre. The whole album is a relentless marriage of old and new, memory and imagination, deconstruction and rediscovery.
While artists like M83 and Blood Orange (among many, many others) have made fruitful use of vintage sounds and production techniques in recent years, Ad Infinitum is a different animal. It’s less like a time capsule and more like a time machine. In the movie version of the story, Lerner would stumble on his way down the stairs, hit his head, and wake up in 1983, and the only way he could get back to the present day would be to make a record using available instruments. Then he’d wake in 2015 to discover he’d been in his basement studio all along. And the record he’d made in that strange dream state would turn out to be Ad Infinitum, the most ambitious and assured Telekinesis release to date.