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Jlin - Autobiography Music Album Reviews

In her soundtrack to the choreographer Wayne McGregor’s DNA-inspired dance work, the post-footwork producer moves from her serpentine IDM toward a new style informed by ambient minimalism.

Jlin’s Autobiography is a contradictory beast. It is, technically, the Gary, Indiana, producer’s third album, following 2015’s Dark Energy and 2017’s Black Origami, although the label and the artist herself are framing it as a collaborative work that sits outside of this timeline. Meanwhile, the title refers not to Jlin’s life but to that of Royal Ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor, who commissioned Autobiography to soundtrack his high-concept dance piece of the same name.

Perversely, though, in soundtracking someone else’s intimate work—Autobiography uses McGregor’s DNA to select the dance sequences the audience will see—Jlin has produced a record that serves as a recap of her whirlwind career, one that has seen her trade the footwork-indebted beats of her early productions for an intricate, pan-global drum funk that nods to the serpentine spirit of IDM without bowing to its often dry delivery.

Autobiography was recorded at the same time as Black Origami, and it is little surprise that that album’s crisp mixture of acoustic-sounding instrumentation (leaning heavily on the sounds of the Indian subcontinent) and drum-machine fury returns periodically. “Kundalini” rides in on the evocative drone of a sārangī, with stirring string lines completing the sense of cinematic adventure, while “Blue i” uses a percussive palette straight out of Black Origami, all galloping tabla drums, echoing claps, and gliding shakers. Best of all, though, is “Carbon 12,” a song full of air, flight, and fancy, which takes a circular marimba melody and straps it to Jlin’s rocket-fueled funk, creating the first Jlin song I can imagine a drum circle jamming to as the sun sets on a Goa beach.

At other times Autobiography feels like more of a throwback to Dark Energy’s coal-black menace, thanks to the presence of sawtooth synth lines—“Mutation” and “Permutation,” in particular, seem to share the same rasping patch—diamond-hard bass drum smack, serrated hi-hat shuffle, and, on lead single “The Abyss of Doubt,” chilling vocal samples. Listening to these songs is akin to enjoying latter-period Aphex Twin, where the pleasure lies not so much in hearing an artist break new ground but in appreciating a producer in total command of his or her element. The drum programming is so well worked here, like Squarepusher raised on footwork and trap rather than jungle and techno, that it makes the impossible feel graceful and the contorted serene, much like ballet itself.

But the most revealing side of Autobiography comes in the handful of songs where Jlin leaves her back catalogue behind in favor of new pastures, delivering music of open spaces, hazy recollection, and the lurking peril of nature, rather than urban intensity and horror-stricken dreams.

In “Anamnesis (Part 1),” a shifting, unresolved piano melody worthy of Brian Eno’s Ambient series dissolves into a rainforest haze, the odd piano note breaking through the sonic gloom like sunbeams through a thick leaf canopy. Six tracks later “Anamnesis (Part 2)” takes up the theme, the melody now reduced to disparate notes that poke through the curtain of forest sounds like an abandoned temple throttled by jungle vines. Elsewhere, this minimalist approach is more stylistically alluring than physically gratifying. “First Interlude (Absence of Measure)” and “Second Interlude (The Choosing)” work within the context of the album—and, you imagine, as part of the ballet—but feel a little bare for repeat listening, as if grieving their dance accompaniment.

That Autobiography is ultimately not the equal of Dark Energy and Black Origami is perhaps to be expected. Those two albums were shockingly new, an injection of pure Jlin that stung like a bath of iced water, while Autobiography feels party to the tale that McGregor’s ballet will tell. Even so, it is an accomplished album full of puckish invention, singular production twists, and ambient murk that offers scintillating hints at where Jlin might go on her third album proper.

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