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Ryan Hemsworth - Elsewhere Music Album Reviews

The Canadian DJ’s most polished solo release yet is an album of catchy, globe-trotting pop that showcases his talents as a songwriter, producer and curator.

The music video for Ryan Hemsworth’s “Special Girl” features a couple dancing their way through a militaristic beauty school on the outskirts of Shanghai—you might compare it to the video for Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time” but with Chinese military uniforms. Perhaps even stranger than the video’s premise is the story of how it came about. Documentary filmmaker Noah Sheldon and his 7-year-old daughter happened upon the Canadian producer in a cafe in Tokyo last December and decided to strike up a conversation. Neither man was familiar with the other’s work but Hemsworth expressed an interest in Sheldon’s latest project, a documentary about the beauty school and its disciplinarian founder. When Sheldon approached Hemsworth with the idea to shoot a choreographed video at the school, he jumped at the opportunity.

This story says a lot about Hemsworth’s attitude towards his craft: open-minded, approachable, and highly collaborative. Long before he achieved jet-setting DJ status, he was using social media to unearth micro-scenes and work with emerging artists on the other side of the globe. But while this curiosity has provided ample grist for Hemsworth’s DJ sets and the Secret Songs label, something has always felt missing from his solo albums. His original material has often felt hemmed in by Hemsworth’s songwriting, which tends toward singer-songwriter introspection that lacks range and depth. With his third solo album, Elsewhere, Hemsworth abandons this sadboy stance almost entirely. Alongside an international cast of collaborators who draw from genres like UK Afrobeats, dancehall, and R&B, Hemsworth infuses these songs with warmth, energy, and a sense of ecstatic joy. Much like with Drake’s recent foray into world music, these sunny hues fit Hemsworth surprisingly well.

Take opener, “This Feeling,” which layers whimsical touches of percussion atop the sort of deep funk groove characteristic of a Kaytranada record. The end result is unapologetic in its ambition to move bodies; it’s music built for dancefloors, not headphones. Both the nocturnal R&B number “Sade” and the wooly pop of “Lagoons” soften the edges of Hemsworth’s typically crisp sound. “Special Girl” and “Beep Beep” draw from a bright palette of marimbas, dancehall melodies, and layers of interlocking percussion. The former is a sublime tropical pop song while on the latter, Atlanta rapper B La B and rapper/singer K4mo stack bubbly rhymes atop drums that clink like glasses. “Beep beep, I’m like ‘Whoa now’/Feet up at your ho house,” B La B playfully jabs; it sounds like he and all parties involved are having a blast.

Hemsworth has a tendency to rethink his sound from album to album, moving from the gameboy symphonies of Guilt Trips to the wintry laptop music of Alone for the First Time to the colorful dance-pop of Elsewhere. Hemsworth does look back here on the closing track “Animal,” revisiting the cold, atmospheric sound of Alone, but it actually feels ambitious now. Hemsworth's chiming, airy instrumental glimmers in the afternoon sun while Robin Dann of jazz-pop band Bernice delivers vocals, which culminate in a cascade of gorgeous three-part harmonies. After a false ending, the song’s elements are reconfigured in a second movement that would feel right at home on a Sigur Rós song, string crescendo and all. Where similar tracks on Alone for the First Time scratched the surface of feelings like loneliness and longing, “Animal” feels rich and nuanced—it’s one of the most refined songs to bear Hemsworth’s name yet.

Elsewhere may suggest a new direction, but its ethos is still wholly Hemsworthian. Though he has collaborated with high-profile artists like E-40, Tinashe, Tory Lanez, and Mitski, all of Elsewhere’s features are from relative unknowns: an experimental producer from Tokyo, a British-Nigerian Afrobeats singer, a playfully melodic rapper from Atlanta via Queens. Where Hemsworth’s previous solo albums were anchored—or, occasionally, weighed down—by his own approach to songwriting, here, he places more trust in his curatorial instincts, following his guests in a number of fruitful directions. Hemsworth has found his way back to where he thrives.

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