With the release of Pretty Lights' fourth album (and first wholly original album), A Color Map Of The Sun, one of the primary issues plaguing contemporary music criticism has come to light once again. Pressed to meet time-sensitive deadlines, reviewers have largely developed an unhealthy tendency to deliver knee-jerk (i.e. less than thought out) reactions resulting in extremely divisive criticisms and ultimately worthless conversation. Pretty Lights' A Color Map Of The Sun highlights this issue as there's truly no consensus to it. On the one hand SPIN believes the album is "insipid bluster" and that it's the "EDM equivalent of a screensaver," while Dancing Astronaut's review reads as an endearing if not hyperbolic love letter to one's idol. These two reviews are certainly not the only of their kind, but they do represent two ends of the spectrum. DAD isn't going to just throw its hat in the ring without having something to say of our own.
Now having had weeks to sit with the album and a chance to hear to the album performed live, there's no question that Colorado's Pretty Lights has grown exponentially from his beginnings as a tinkering bedroom remixer and into a full-fledged musical artist. As evidenced by his initial releases, Pretty Lights has crafted a wholly unique signature style from a smorgasbord of hand-picked soul, funk, blues, and hip-hop samples, and in doing so has made one of the most imitable and memorable sonic stamps in recent history. With that said, this album has come come on the heels of an extensive waiting time (his third album, Passing by Behind Your Eyes, came out in 2009) and numerous "leaks" and countless rumors. More than that, since the album's initial formal announcement in April, much has been made about the producer's production and composition process. Using the documentary format, Pretty Lights has let everyone know of his painstaking process he put himself through to produce A Color Map Of The Sun. Traveling the country to work with and assemble the best studio musicians and guests, Pretty Lights composed music on the road, on the fly, and on the spot, directing his participants with each artistic whim. Committed to his processes and distinct vision, Smith pressed the recording session results to wax so he could sample it all for his album. Speaking on the album, Smith explained "this “album” is a multi-medium map of my mind and my self. It is personal and honest and I put everything into it. I have stayed on the path of being a completely independent musician and with the help of every supporter and friend, we have transformed a simple idea into a movement, a cultural beacon of light. If you can, I encourage you to purchase a digital or physical copy of A Color Map of the Sun. If not simply support by sharing the music and sharing the idea. If there is any success to be had from this album, it will go back into my rule bending, never ending quest to channel beauty and taste through music and art."
The result of his lengthy, if not seemingly redundant, process is an hour plus long album featuring the vintage sound Pretty Lights has become famous for. His signature sonic soup of African American music melded with once cutting edge sound design and future flavor has made Pretty Lights a go-to crossover act pulling in fans at the intersection of classic rock, hip-hop, electronic, and soul. With A Color Map Of The Sun, Smith extended his formula in the best of ways, making the exact album his fans wanted. Smith's album also exemplifies the current generation's hipster obsession with "retro," as he pulls from eras gone by and works with a purely analog recording setup. Twangy blues riffs, soul-stuttering edits and grainy, distorted but no less emotive vocals, Pretty Lights has envisioned himself as the Wizard of Oz, manipulating and controlling each aspect with dexterity and delicacy to create a magical experience.
Pretty Lights' A Color Map Of The Sun is no doubt a bombastic return to form that his fans will love and defend for the rest of time. The low-down funk punctured by razor sharp electro stabs surely make for some deliciously intoxicating summer vibes, but is that enough? Pretty Lights previously shattered boundaries earlier in his career and has since become one of the most bankable acts in dance music, with his devout following and cult-like status. With that sort of reputation and loving fans, it's no wonder that it seems Pretty Lights has made so much about his revamped recording process to make up for a less-than-adventurous album. As Smith's heady vibes and effervescent style laces the record's entirety, there's no doubt that we're being transported to a world different than any other, but now in 2013, it's also with a strange sense of deja vu.
What is this deja vu? Is this deja vu coming from a timeless quality inherent to Smith's soul-sampling hip-hop electro soul? Or is it the mark of a gaudy and self-indulgent exercise in modern electronica?
Building upon the boom-bap and jazz rap era(s) of 1990's hip-hop with a heavy dose of electronica, Pretty Lights has been at the forefront of an emerging genre. Up until this point, the very basis of Pretty Lights' music has been other people's music interpolated between iconic riffs, memorable melodies and a signature stomp. Countless acts both on and off Pretty Lights Music have emulated this sound to various degrees of success and quality, but this has now been happening for over decade. It was in 2010 after the release of his third album that it seemed Pretty Lights could reach a new stratosphere of artistry. With the release of A Color Map Of The Sun, Pretty Lights has not reached a new stratosphere. For all the buzz about his new process, Pretty Lights has effectively re-created the exact same sound he built his name on without showing any real artistic evolution. More than that, A Color Map Of The Sun comes at a time when Pretty Lights - a noted fan of acts like DJ Shadow and other supporters of of the future bass movement - could have made a break for it and done something new and exciting. Perhaps in a time when every act is chasing the flavor of the week (such as Skrillex's upcoming deep house rebirth), sticking to your own sound might be refreshing in an of itself.
There's a certain comfort that Pretty Lights' music affords. There's no doubt that this record is as personal and honest as Smith says it is, but it doesn't feel like he's covered any new sonic ground. Make no mistake, this album is wholly enjoyable and will surely stay in rotations for a long time. But perhaps in making such an enjoyable album, Pretty Lights has sacrificed part of what made him so great to begin with.
A Color Map of the Sun is available now via Pretty Lights Music.