It begins with “Lazy Bones”, a brief instrumental track of resonant, inflected keystrokes that quiver like sea anemones. Ponderous and inquisitive, its pseudo ambience would charm Brian Eno himself. “From The Halfway Line” bears very little resemblance to its namesake, basking in the languid swell of an Animals-esque Gilmour guitar. Save for the perfunctory percussion that grounds the track halfway through, there is little in the way of form. Taylor delivers a gruff respirator purr on “Immune System”, shivering on its own echoes amidst blunt, arrhythmic synth beats. The studied, repetitious minimalism of “Elvis Has Left The Building” is an understated triumph, a melodiously miserly hymn to Whitney, Dylan, Prince and the King, even if it is overlong by about two minutes. If the best moments from In Our Heads were a series of endlessly complex and interlocking geometric shapes, some of the most arresting tracks on Await Barbarians are like watching ripples magnify and spread themselves across the surface of a liquid.
Even the most compositionally cohesive songs here are situated further to the left of his usual leftfield. There’s no more of the bouncy didgeridoo funk of Nayim...‘s “Hot Squash”, for instance, a song which is made to look positively kitsch compared to “Without A Crutch (2)”. The record’s first single practically a country ballad of sorts, trundling along on a composition of banjo, harmonica and delicate slide guitar (all played by Taylor himself), giving him ample room for some sweet but typically abstruse verses: “You’re stone and my paper’s rough/But scissors this blunt still can cut/It’s not a game we’re playing here/The die’s been cast but it rolls too near”.
(the line of best fit)
As Await Barbarians opens to the off-kilter arrangement of 'Lazy Bones' - its woozy piano pitching and shifting in tone - there's a brief concern that this might be yet another exercise in obfuscation; Taylor's eccentricities getting the better of him once again. But as the track slowly levels out and gives way to the undulating raw soul of 'From The Halfway Line', what emerges is a more intimate portrait than we're use to; unguarded reflections on companionship, love and death peppering the album in the form of his spare compositions.
It's something best exemplified on the album's centrepiece 'Without A Crutch (2)', a minimalist country-indebted ballad that drifts along with the ease of a gently flowing stream; the twang of guitars washing softly over piano chords, the gentle wheeze of a harmonica mimicking its infectiously simple sing-a-long hook. It tells the story of a relationship which, while not quite collapsed is in need of some serious scaffolding; "It's not as though our hearts are tough/Why do we rub ourselves so rough?" sings Taylor in a startlingly personal moment. It's a poignancy which is only solidified when the track returns in a stripped back form towards the end of the album. Its reprise adding further layers of brittle clarity to Taylor's lyrics; his fragile falsetto straining to breaking point as it draws the album to a close. (...)
Await Barbarians won't be for everyone and if you're expecting anything approaching Hot Chip then keep on walking. But if you were intrigued by Taylor's early solo efforts and have been hankering for him to produce something more cohesive, then this is a beguiling and downbeat gem. The witty and intelligent intimacy of his lyrics and his finely restrained vocals growing richer with each repeated listen.
(drowned in sound)