Torn Hawk – Union & Return (Mexican Summer, 2016)


Torn Hawk continues to go from strength to strength with every record, slowly climbing out of the mire of fringe Vaporwave irony and into the light of increasingly crisp and resonant productions. Whilst previous showing Let’s Cry And Do Pushups At The Same Time was very much a step into the direction that Union & Return finds itself in, it still languished in the past, ensconcing itself in nostalgia and trying to play away age and cling to its youthfulness with tongue-in-cheek titles, bleary synths and crooning guitar yearning. Now we’re finally granted an opportunity to take a step back and look at things a little more aloofly in the pleasant, Summery kitsch of Union & Return.

The album very much feels as though it falls into two halves; the first is the more optimistic and wanton of the two, bold in its bright vision of its surroundings even when it may not have every right to be. “Feeling Is Law” for example perhaps takes a light jab at the state of socio-political affairs in its almost selfish referencing, lost inside rattling percussion and bright guitar lines, woodwinds occasionally casting a clouding vignette like passing offences. Still it has a hopeful and deeply resurgent force, fresh piano and dense percussion driving it away from its problems in a pretty kitschy but undeniably triumphant final sequence. Some its attitudes find themselves reappearing in mid-album beauty “Friends & Family”, its idiosyncratic guitar pickings setting the base for the piano and MIDI vocal fragments to fall behind, harmonising into a cohesive support structure. It’s playful and integrating, lush in its elongate softness and carefree in its jovial poly-rhythms.

Pace is often an important aspect of the pieces, with “Borderlands” wiggling forwards on light hi-hats and at times what sounds like a mandolin winnowing in the backfield, textures slowly creeping out of the woodwork as thick cellos and characteristic guitar croonings introduce themselves effortlessly into the mix, the piece evolving with impossibly elegant grace as it fuses unplaceable genres together. Its follower “With My Back To The Tower” has similar intentions also, languishing in surprisingly darkling piano and woozy synths to paint an off-kilter vista before converting midway, taking the initial low-energy lullings and turning them on their head, the labyrinthine textures suddenly rising to a syncopated clamour of intoxicating fervour, the rage against the machine. One can’t help but feel that this is the perfect retro-futurist irony that M83 tried so desperately to achieve on Junk but failed to do, magnificent in its delicious weirdness.

The second half feels a lot more collapsed than the first, sinking into the mires of personal troubles that it sought so strongly to avoid; interlude “Scene On A Staircase” takes a strangely filmic turn into the drama of “Our Knives”, a piece that oddly wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mike Oldfield record in its whiny guitars and skittering tambourines before slowly melting back into synth and distant orchestration in its turnaround. Its partner in “The Archers” takes on a different vibe though, channeling Oneohtrix somewhat in its simpering MIDI chorals as it advances in harsh staccato piano, everything restless but imbibed with a blurry melancholia, unlike say the cool and crisp violin led passages of earlier “Thornfield” and its glimmery, low-key presentation that teeters on the edge of sad vibes but is kept from doing so with its grandiose production.

Paradoxical presentation is strongest in closer “Die Swimming In The Sea Here” though, its rather bleak title defying the lightweight and Summery bleariness found within. Actually it’s a perfect album summary, its initially claustrophobic bass weights lifting away to reveal a sensitive and ambitious vista of crooning guitars and triumphant horns as it overcomes adversity with aplomb, highlighting the irony in the fact that some of the most beautiful places on Earth are the most dangerous to inhabit, a quick final poke at nature’s hypocrisy. There’s a lot of love and enthusiasm here that’s difficult to avoid in general, even in its most deliberately dark moments, that makes this a great listen. The effortless counterbalance of emotions and quixotic musical styles will continue to surprise you at every turn, even after many listens.