In a Pitchfork interview a few years ago, Jamie Lidell boasted of moving his CDs out of the various store sections where they'd first been filed. But he never did specify the genre to which he thinks he belongs. When pressed on this point in a recent phone call, the Manhattan-based Brit only becomes more cryptic.
"I am more than just a pigeon in a hole, and it would be dishonest for me to posture as merely one bird," says the 36-year-old known equally for his Warp Records–approved homemade electronics and his NPR-friendly neo-soul singing. "An odd bird, or just a bird with itchy feet? A bird with itchy feet might be seen as subversive by the flock ... but it just likes the view from up there, maybe."
Um, yes, maybe. Lidell's fourth and newest solo album, Compass, comes no closer to containing the man who referred to himself on 2005's critical breakout, Multiply, as a "walking talking question mark." Brushing off reports that his typically messy new album is "transitional" ("I can't see how any album could fail to be transitional"), he contrarily wishes he saved the previous effort's autobiographical title, Jim, for this one. "I think this album is the closest yet to answering the question, 'What does Jamie Lidell sound like?'"
A longtime techno producer who collaborated with Cristian Vogel in the Super_Collider project of the late '90s, Lidell slowly began earmarking his tunes with organic touches and R&B–style vocals, catching the ears of British pop and worldwide indie-rock audiences in the process. Helpfully, Allmusic once likened him to fellow overstuffed maximalists Basement Jaxx. It's still not always easy to really hear his music; beneath all the postproduction wizardry and layers of craft, the songs aren't very pretty or catchy. What they are is twisty and impressively packed.
Case in point: wailing, bluesy first single "The Ring," which befits a studio obsessive who lionizes Prince and Tom Waits. It started "as a slow country jam with Feist and Beck singing, but ended up with just me and a trumpet and some beatbox frenzy," Lidell says, laughing. Beck, the aforementioned collaborator and eclectic-alt-demigod, is an obvious influence, at least for Compass' roiling heap of clutter and toys. Quizzing Lidell for a sound I haven't picked up from a dense mix, I ask whether he has ever thought of taking up the mandolin. Apparently there's one buried in Jim's "Rope of Sand," though I'm less embarrassed for not noticing the sauna ("a great instrument") overdubbed on Compass, or the "burning microphone" ("one that needed a good roasting"). "I've never tried playing custard or the colostomy bagpipes," he offers as consolation for failing to stump him.
Lidell's imagination seems perpetually self-energizing, but he isn't entirely in his own world. Reflecting on those other iconoclastic forebears, he gushes, Prince "already has eras within his career, which is in and of itself an incredible achievement. And I look to Tom Waits these days as an example of someone that's not going to burn out easy."
Speaking of not burning out easy, RIAA be damned: "When it becomes impossible to make a living from it, or I lose the itch, I'll do something else," Lidell says. "But right now I think I might be in it for the long haul." After a sigh, he adds: "Hopefully I'll always keep the itching powder in the shoes." Yes, that's one way to keep a pigeon out of its hole.