From landing a Top 10 hit with an early dance classic to producing Madonna, London’s William Orbit was a low-key presence at some of electronic music’s most important crossover moments. “Fascinating Rhythm,” a 1990 single from his group Bass-o-matic, was a magically haunting bit of slow-motion house, while his Strange Cargo albums were landmark releases, mixing fourth-world electronics with dub basslines, ambient house trills, and new-age atmosphere. Later he worked on Madonna’s Ray of Light and Music and Blur’s 13, stopping only to invent classical trance with his hugely influential cover of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” before getting heavily into cocaine in the 2010s, doing what he describes as his “rock’n’roll excess thing,” and eventually being committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Orbit makes his re-entry with The Painter, his first album since 2014. His productions sound as opulent as ever, daubed with lavish string arrangements, sparkling guitars, and the most polished vocal effects that a lucrative production career can bring. On the opening “Duende,” luxuriously plucked guitar meets gorgeous string sweeps, guest singer Katie Melua’s effusively processed voice, and a slightly anodyne beat. A gilded balloon of ambient pop floating in a directionless waft of relaxation, this is music that doesn’t have to be anywhere in a hurry. “Gold Coast” is another indolent highlight, its plaintive guitar riff, twinkling piano, and electronic squiggles bubbling like hot oil in a lava lamp, while “I Paint What I Can See” (featuring longtime collaborator Beth Orton) makes excellent use of a bassline reminiscent of Orbit’s excursions into dub on Strange Cargo III.
It all sounds very nice, and it is—potentially too much so for The Painter’s overall good. What is, on paper, a tantalizing group of guest singers—including Colombian-Canadian Lido Pimienta and late Tanzanian musician Hukwe Zawose—succumbs to a honeyed stream of premium chill-out moods and expensive sunset feels. “Nuestra Situación,” featuring Pimienta, may be the most telling example: The reggaeton-lite beat nods to genuine musical progress in Orbit’s world, but sees its resistance washed away in identikit synth and piano vibes. Zawose’s sampled vocal on “Heshima kwa Hukwe” endures a similar fate, its edges drowned in Orbit’s ornate blurs.
This is an affliction that hits The Painter time and again, as singers as distinct as knitted-brow electro artist Polly Scattergood and house crooner Ali Love are lost to a Dido-ized soft focus. Orbit claims to focus on “melody, feeling, sonics and narrative” in his work, but it feels like he has gotten caught up in the scene-setting opening paragraphs of an idyllic travelog, rather than developing a story of dramatic depth. The exception to this is the dubbed-out “Epic” mix of “I Paint What I Can See,” a sprawling excursion into astral ambience that closes the album in a grandiloquent wave of distorted guitars and maternal low end, whose electrifying ebb-and-flow brings grit and drama to The Painter’s golden shores. Sadly, this obvious album highlight is only available on the vinyl edition of The Painter, a bizarre decision that only serves to bury Orbit’s best work.
“Epic” aside, The Painter serves up a pastel buffet of friction-free music that proves entirely pleasant in small doses. Over the length of an album, though, it feels like the day-lit nightmare of an interminable sunset, an infinity pool that literally never ends. It’s great that William Orbit is back after some difficult years, but you suspect The Painter may ultimately have been more rewarding to create than it is to listen to. It comes off as a therapeutic act from an artist who, assuming he’s managed his royalties, never really needs to work again, rather than an album that simply had to be made.
All products featured on Pitchfork are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.