It’s no secret that John McIlwain’s Lusine project holds a pretty special place in my heart, and another review of an all-time favourite from him is coming soon, but for now we find ourselves concerned with the careful excitations and dramas of his most recent record The Waiting Room. As always, we get more than we bargained for in its guardedly emotional 50 minute span.
I’ve read a lot of reviews regarding this album and what bothers me in all of them is how they refer to it as a principally EDM record due to its Microhouse and Ambient Techno roots, yet none of them, and I mean literally none, seem to touch on the obvious deeper emotional implications of this record. It’s immersed in romance and complex relationship drama in amongst its heady rhythms and it’s never referred to, which I think is a crippling shame since after many careful listens it clearly has a great deal to say. The fact that John has made this his most vocally active record to date I think is very telling in its own right; half of the tracks here are vocally lead which is very unusual, and most of them feature the soft tones of his wife Sarah, and all seem to have a faint undercurrent of John’s own dulcet tones forming a delicate, if precariously imbalanced, duet.
Pieces like the rework of Electronic’s classic “Get The Message” virtually right off the bat assay suggestions of trouble in paradise between the sugary beats, Sarah’s clear voice and John’s dulled echoes that sing of the woes of keeping things together, the pains of being apart but the fundamental disparities within the two that so drive them to be. “A shame that we’re/ Not you or me”, the final sung words note that they’re just not as good as the sum of their parts. Later on, “By This Sound” repeats some of the same sentiments again but in a more careful and measured way, worried about the course of their relationship as metaphors of driving are summoned, both seemingly reluctant to take the reins in troubled times, preferring to keep a steady course in the safe beats and gloss over slightly melted and tired obfuscation.
The others featuring Sarah, “Another Tomorrow” and “Without A Plan”, are quite different though, both with distinct A Certain Distance vibes to them in their synth flangings and fluted arpeggios. “Another Tomorrow” particularly emphasises the use of repetitive lyrics – within the confines of its bouncy, clipped synths and drum patterns – that talk of better and brighter days to come, the prospect of overcoming the trials and impositions of today as we move forwards to become stronger. It feels like we don’t really know how to do that in appropriately titled “Without A Plan”, but its crackling haze and bright tones feel really earnest and innocent and create an organic and spontaneous aura that just tells us to go with the flow, take things as they come.
To me it lies in the instrumental pieces here to create a sense of place and context, and I’ve always thought these were the reflective musings of someone returning home, replaying these recent romantic hardships as he eagerly returns after a separation, coming back together and using that reuniting power to give this repair some impetus. We certainly feel airborne in the dramatic vistas of “Panoramic”, with a skip in its step as it watches the slow unfolding of this sweeping textural build, the cinematic foundation that opens the record and sinks away into troubled thought. It’s reflected in the penultimate “Stratus”, surging forwards on progressive and excited chatters of thrumming synth that watch the landscape slide by and catch snippets of our fellow travellers but paying them no mind. Importantly, closer “February” feels very grounded and determined in its thick bass core, walking confidently through the masses to rejoin the other half of his life he yearns for, despite everything. It’s the most driven and deliberate of the lot, its big crescendos disrupted by its lapse into comforting intimacies as it settles into familiar and stable quietness.
I honestly believe this is a masterclass that’s really overlooked; most people seem to only glance at this and feel they understand it, not bothering to delve into its lyrical depths or consider its thoughtful developments and see it purely as a collection of mechanical pseudo-dance pieces or meaningless Ambient Pop works. It feel real and honest, a precious insight into their lives carefully clouded in expertly realised music that gives us just enough of a taste to feel empathetic but not so much to seem nosy. Brilliant.