Ryan Hemsworth is capable of creating a great full-length record. The 23-year-old from Halifax has released a string of solid solo EPs over the past few years, which have straddled the blurry line between hip-hop and electronic music. He’s also produced strong beat work for the Oakland-based Green Ova crew and North Carolina rapper Deniro Farrar, and some heavily buzzed-about remixes. We can cherry pick the best from this output—off the top of my head, let’s say “Castle in England” off of A Way, “Outside Dublin” from Kitsch Genius, “Charly Wingate” and “Colour & Movement” from Last Words, and rap tracks like Shady Blaze’s “Dreamin” and the Deniro Farrar/Shady Blaze collaboration “Fallen Soldiers”—and we’re already halfway to an excellent LP.
Unfortunately, Guilt Trips—Hemsworth’s debut full-length—is not that LP. Instead, this is another good, if somewhat underwhelming, entry in the producer’s workmanlike output.
In 2012 it felt like Hemsworth had arrived artistically. The Last Words EP was his strongest release up to that point, and he was drawing national attention with his bootlegs and remixes. 2013 has, to my ears, marked a shift in Hemsworth’s sound. On the Still Awake EP from earlier this year he diversified his sonic palette, incorporating more video game-inspired tones into tracks that seemed a bit more formal and composed than what he had released previously. Still Awake may have sounded more accomplished and mature than what had come before, but it lacked the excitement and compulsive replayability of Hemsworth’s best prior work.
Guilt Trips is made up of ten tracks split evenly between instrumentals and features, and the five instrumentals pick up roughly where Still Awake left off. These tracks are melodically simple but busy, featuring bright, almost crystalline synthetic timbres. The strongest of the instrumentals here are “Weird Life” and “Ryan Must Be Destroyed”. The former has a driving, anthemic quality, and the latter sports a memorable, slightly off-kilter melody. Both make great use of sampled vocals that contribute to a frenetic, immediate quality in rare supply on the rest of the album.
The features on Guilt Trips are a bit different from anything we’ve heard on Hemsworth’s EPs. His production on these tracks is relatively restrained, leaving plenty of room for his guest vocalists to maneuver. The highlights are “Still Cold”, featuring a vocal by the Anticon artist Baths, and “One for Me” with the RCA-signed Tinashe. Baths’ Will Wiesenfeld steals his track with a characteristically offbeat and poignant falsetto delivery and droll lyrics that run: “It’s almost funny that you’re still so cold/ What are you, Taylor Swift?/ It’s almost funny that you’re still so cold/ And that I think you’re worth the bullshit/ You’re not.” Tinashe’s performance is not as attention-grabbing as Wiesenfeld’s, but she has a beautiful, spare tone that suits the song’s wistful lyrics perfectly.
The instrumentals and features on Guilt Trips do not always sit comfortably next to one another. The record has an odd, meandering flow, and never quite gathers full momentum. The common characteristic uniting these ten tracks is a kind of nebulousness; Guilt Trips is well-crafted but light, with wispy songs that threaten to disappear before they have concluded. But if we can expect anything from Ryan Hemsworth, it is that his sound will continue to evolve. As he recently told Interview magazine: “If you’re too pigeonholed—which is really the case with a lot of producers nowadays—you pop up, and then you have this really specific sound, and everyone writes about it, and then you fade away really quickly. I want to pop my head up in every different genre so if something stops being interesting, I can pop up and make something else.” This restlessness leaves me hopeful that Hemsworth will get the mixture right with his next try.
3 out of 5
You can buy Guilt Trips on Amazon.