Contrary to the impressions gained from the title of Blood Orange’s third LP, Dev Hynes‘ third full length outing doesn’t mark a dramatic shift in sound. Freetown Sound does, however, bring about a side of the British-American musician, that we seldom see conveyed through his musical output.
The vintage, funk inspired guitar hooks underpinning smooth vocal harmonies are this time punctuated by impassioned subject matters – themes of contemporary politics, racial identity and police brutality make their mark on the record without becoming overbearing. Though opening track “By Ourselves” sets the tone emphatically.
Tracks like “Augustine” and “EVP” are what we’ve come to expect, with a twist or two. We’ve never heard Dev Hynes be quite this candid in over ten years of releasing music. “My mother off the boat”, “Our heads have hit the pavement” – it’s not quite the lyrical tone one would expect from an album slabbed with the label of a nuevo funk + R&B inspired pop feast.
But it works, and it seems almost too easy for Blood Orange at this point to release music that’s as outrageously catchy as it is powerful. Perhaps the album’s calling cards “EVP” and “Best To You” demonstrate best the musician’s knack for arranging infectious vocals over diverse instrumentation. Fellow New Yorker Empress Of provides vocals on the latter, one of the album’s many tracks that will induce a repeated mashing of the replay button.
It’s easy to mistake a track as replayable as “Hands Up” as a head nodding indie anthem. By the end of the track, the song’s connection to the Black Lives Matter movement is unmistakeable. It’s a stark message, half angry, half fearful, and expressed through gritted teeth. “Are you sleeping with the lights on baby?” “Sure enough they’re gonna take your body”.
In an ever changing digital climate, and a world where major music outlets are devoted to teenybopper, unobjectionable pop music, it may be naïve to assume that a groundbreaking album could come along and rally a disparate society to a single cause. But Freetown Sound feels like the most likely record in years to break the sedate, complicit inertia of musical culture and make a change. Either way, the sound on offer is undeniably gorgeous, giving the listener two different, equally rewarding sides of the coin.
With little fanfare, Hynes enlists Debbie Harry, Nellie Furtado and Carly Rae Jepsen (why not?) to chip in to the album with vocal contributions, providing some of the record’s more luscious moments. Further contributions from Porches and Kindness add even more depth to the scene, which is as colourful and varied as we’ve seen from a Blood Orange album to date.
Freetown Sound is Hynes’ most accomplished record to date, and his freshest sounding, having finally perfected and etched out his own sound. After his escapades as guitarist for the Test Icicles, warmly received indie outings as Lightspeed Champion and early promise in the two preceding LPs, he’s finally found his calling, with a record that will critically immortalise the artist.
In a February 2016 article, VICE described Blood Orange as “everyone’s safe ‘I’m a cool person’ answer to the question: ‘What music are you into at the moment?’”. But Freetown Sound swats away any preconceived perception of the artist as an inoffensive, toe tapping flavour of the month for anyone to name check.
It’s an album much in the same vein as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly – refreshing, topical and empowering, with the potential to be remembered as an immortal, classic album, the likes of which the public at large embrace during times of darkest political volatility. Oh, and there’s saxophones too. Plenty of them. Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound is out now via Domino Recording, purchase it on iTunes here.
Words by Joseph David Horne