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Wolfgang Tillmans/Powell - Spoken By the Other EP Music Album Reviews

The mischievous electronic producer teams up with the photographer on an album where the latter’s voice becomes the source material for unsettling tracks full of silence and space.

Wolfgang Tillmans’ work is a reminder that no freedom is a given. The German-born photographer started out in the 1980s capturing his young peers, a generation removed from the nation’s post-war privations, growing up and living freely in ways that none of their forebears did, or could: taking ecstasy in clubs, getting naked in parks, finding comfort in their true selves.

His newest project, a six-track collaborative EP with the electronic producer Oscar Powell, applies his ethos to sound—which remains a little-explored medium for him, at least relative to his sprawling body of visual art. After playing around with music in his teens, he took a 30-year break from it, returning in 2016 with a focus-free EP and a full-spotlight appearance on Frank Ocean’s Endless. When he and Powell first began work on Spoken By the Other, it was originally envisioned as a showcase of Tillmans’ singing over Powell’s dance beats. Unsatisfied with the predictable direction materializing, they ditched the songs and pushed outward. Ultimately, Tillmans’ voice became the source material for these six tracks: Powell toys with it one short phrase at a time, manipulating textures and exploiting glitches without succumbing to an obvious pulse. There’s rhythm here, technically speaking, but these aren’t exactly songs. These sometimes unsettling tracks are full of space and silence, and not necessarily made for the same audience who enjoyed the twisted club throb of Powell’s 2016 statement album, Sport. Spoken By the Other contains no dance music, and only a few moments that could be charitably described as danceable music.

“Feel the Night” starts the EP the same way that some great live sets end: with the synthesizers making a climactic final crescendo, falling apart, and melting into an ambient wash while the spotlights flash. Powell’s strobe-like synth quivers as Tillmans bellows, “Feel the night/Lose your pride.” As a singer, Tillmans doesn’t exactly shine, but his willingness to belt away feeds the album’s free-will energy. He plunges rudely into the final third of “Tone Me,” aggressively snapping the titular command—meant as a sendup of gym culture—after nearly four minutes of Powell’s dread-filled, arachnoid creep-up. On “Speak Out (Version),” he gratingly groans a generic call to arms, which Powell then spins into an inhuman, whirlwind drone, as if reaffirming their freedom to do whatever they want with a melody. “Rebuilding the Future” is a side step into humor, where Tillmans sounds like a water-damaged sales robot clamoring, “Rebuilding the future/Rebuilding the now!”—which sounds a little like something a text generator might write after analyzing transcripts from Apple’s product reveals.

Of Tillmans’ photographic work, the project that’s closest in spirit to Spoken By the Other might be “Sendeschluss/End of Broadcast,” his 2014 series of photograph of television static. The images appeared to be nothing more than the black-and-white chaos of a screen with no signal, but they also revealed swaths of color hiding in plain sight. On “Doucement,” especially, Tillman’s voice sounds subsumed by granular sound, which Powell seems to drop around him indiscriminately—two humans wandering freely through noise without a signal, just for the joy of it. For a fun, unencumbered, first-time collaboration, Spoken By the Other similarly harbors its fair share of color.

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