ENDLESS (streaming on Apple Music)
Enigmatic R&B writer/producer/singer/genius-in-the-making Frank Ocean isn’t taking the piss but he’s not without a sense for humour, or handyman skills.
Having not released an album in four years since the (justifiably) lauded Channel Orange, having teased for the past two years that a new album, to be called Boys Don’t Cry, was imminent, having dropped big hints for the past two weeks that it was coming any day now, Ocean overnight released new music without notice.
Not Boys Don’t Cry – that may be coming this weekend, but then again so may Christmas and an end to indefinite offshore detention – but a “visual album” called Endless. You know, endless, like the wait for Boys Don’t Cry. Oh, how he must be laughing.
When we say visual album we’re not talking Lemonade, the spectacular Beyonce released earlier this year, full of high-quality films capturing the mix of relationship drama, black political activism and feminist defiance of the songs.
In Endless, multiple versions of Ocean are seen building a staircase in an industrial-looking space, presumably in his hometown of Los Angeles. Much of it has been showing on his website for some time: monochromatic; fixed cameras; not exactly like watching paint dry but certainly more Andy Warhol than Baz Lurhmann.
The staircase building now though is accompanied by beguiling, subdued and, yes, enigmatic music. These 18 songs don’t have the internal monologue-meets-relationship intervention feel of Channel Orange; the full-blown confessions are missing, replaced with more diffused analogies. However, Endless never feels impersonal.
Bar an introduction and closing number with the clipped beats and detached vocals of classic German electronica – the voice here by German Wolfgang Tillmans – this album has the intimacy of a late night conversation. Though maybe between friends rather than lovers.
Ocean, whether in high, drifting, tones, a tender croon or a low, conversational setting, lays out some typical topics: what happens when communications are at cross purposes; who owns the truth in a relationship; how often we drift in life when ennui has more allure than decisiveness.
The sounds favour electronic over organic R&B, creating more space but also more deliberate separation. This time around, Ocean has asked you in but is working his way to full disclosure.
If the palette is not quite as vivid as Channel Orange, it’s not anywhere near as restricted as the colour scheme of the visuals. Ocean’s voice is sometimes multi-tracked; there are European undertones in the keyboards alongside touches of acoustic and electric guitar; and the textures associated with Englishman James Blake (who has both taken inspiration from Ocean, and in turn inspired the Californian) and another, older chronicler of sunny LA in shade, Brian Wilson, are detectable. And through it all there’s a strong line of soul.
Who knows whether Boys Don’t Cry will be the complementary second half of Endless, a point of departure to startle rather than comfort, or, like the staircase, never actually seen completed.
What we know is that the first results of Ocean’s long, long march since Channel Orange is music that demands to played and played again.