Score: 8 / 10
Like fellow survivors of the ‘90s Massive Attack or Andrew Wethearall, long-standing producer and DJ Justin Robertson is often lumped with that most of awful of tags ‘British institution’. Yet, it is a term that Robertson is clearly uneasy with. For an artist whose past includes a central role in Manchester’s acid house boom to spearheading the breaks sound of the late ‘90s and the electro-rock of more recent times, Robertson has always sustained a surprisingly low profile compared to those around him. Whether through mostly releasing music under aliases and within collectives, most notably as Lionrock, or through a seeming disinterest for the spectacle that the other acts around him courted like cheap tarts, Robertson’s distance from marquee name status has always seemed coy and playful, and what’s more intentional.
Most obviously in recent years this distance has been maintained through releasing records under an alias that listener might not immediately realise to be Robertson: the enigmatically coined The Deadstock 33’s. Back in 2009 when electro and disco 12” records started to arrive under the mysterious pseudonym on labels such as Paper Recordings and Is It Baleraric? Recordings, it was unclear who was behind the beats. Flash forward eighteen months and, after a string of slightly terser electro collaborations with Daniel Avery, it became public knowledge that Deadstock was, indeed, the latest alter-ego of Robertson. In fact, subsequent regular releases under the Deadstock pseudonym have been something of a a period of studio prolificacy. As such, amidst this second wind (or should be third or fourth), a new artist album from Robertson for nearly a decade is a less surprising prospect than it would have been a few years back.
What is more surprising, if you’ve followed the fairly steady stream of singles which have seen Robertson focus on cuts made for dance-floors, is the breadth of sounds at work in The Pilgrim’s Ghost. Ranging from cosmic crossover jams to balearic psychedelica to DFA-esque disco, the variety of sounds within the album’s eleven track narrative present a more sonically-diverse side to the Deadstock concept than we’ve previously encountered.
Right from the first few bars, the album makes clear its intent, wearing its frame of musical references on its sleeves. Opener Tic Tic Toc introduces the effect-heavy guitar riffs and hazy, spaced out aesthetic that pervades the album like a heavy fog, from the deliciously delay-heavy My Best Dub to the thick, dreamy riffs of stoner’s love ode Impatient For Your Love. From opening number to closing cut The Pilgrim’s Ghost is, even including a number of instrumental outings, an album of ‘songs’ not functional dance-floor ‘tracks’. This is not only a guy who knows the distinction between an LP and an arbitrary collection of dance-floor tracks, but what’s more wants you to know that he knows.
Yet, this is not an album whose laurels rest on its technical excellence. In fact, it is the sense of the personal and heart-felt that makes The Pilgrim’s Ghost such a rewarding listen. From the weighty-bass, synth melody and idiosyncratic vocals of Underneath The Pine to the two-tone dub melancholia of C’est L’Amour, the record is littered with standout and emotionally heightened moments. Sometimes it’s just the tiniest of flourishes, the subtle cowbells of My Best Dub or the warped vocals of album closer Twisted Veil, that not only reveal Robertson’s deft touch but the record’s innate humanity, and allow the listening experience to transcend into the realms of the sublime.
However, for all its moments of greatness The Pilgrim’s Ghost is not a record without flaws. For starters, all the most impressive numbers are packed into the first half of the album which makes for a punchy opening, but the second half drags and underwhelms in comparison. What’s more, whilst the range of sounds that Robertson is working with is impressive, they’re all essentially rooted in the realms of nostalgia. Certainly what Robertson is doing with these received styles and tropes is interesting (not least because he was around when they were being formed), but it’s difficult to accept the album on any other terms than an appropriation or re-framing of the balerica and crossover sounds that could only be considered innovative a couple of decades back. If you’re fed up dance-music forever chasing its own tail, this might not be the record for you.
It is perhaps unfair to criticise Robertson for not moving on from the sounds and ideas that established him, especially when he’s approaching them with as much as innovation and refreshment as he is here. Oozing with more charisma and coherence than half-a-dozen other dance-music albums put together, it would be unfair to percieve The Pilgrim’s Ghost as anything other than a long-overdue success. A glorious celebration of everything that Robertson has achieved – and continues to do so.