The lavish sound Jon Barthmus crafted on Sun Airway's 2010 debut, Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier, became more popular and widespread thanks to the releases of albums by kindred spirits such as M83, Neon Indian, and Beat Connection, and in turn, Barthmus goes even bigger and more polished on Soft Fall. Where Nocturne... was crafted largely in Barthmus' bedroom, this time he had a string quartet record arrangements based on chopped-up samples of classical music in one studio, a live band record in another studio, and enlisted the help of David Wrench to give it all a harmonious mix. The results are more streamlined than Sun Airway's debut, but just as vivid; Barthmus was inspired by fittingly elaborate imagery like Versailles' gilded glass halls and the work of the Japanese art collective NAM -- whose Soft Fall artwork captures the album's elegant chaos -- and the elliptical word paintings of Andre Breton's poetry. While this is a remarkably process-oriented album, Soft Fall is also some of Barthmus' most engaging work, especially on the tracks where tight song structures give form and contrast to his grandiose tendencies. He uses the muchness of his music especially well on "Close" and "Wild Palms," conveying separation from his beloved by cramming every space and second full of lovely obstacles, and on "Black Noise," a love song to dead air that just might be Barthmus' poppiest work yet. His ambition to take the concepts he set forth on Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier extends to its instrumental interludes, the "Activities," which emphasize Soft Fall's deconstructed classical influences by breaking up the album in suite-like fashion and showing off its unique mix of fragmented and flowing sounds. Indeed, at times Barthmus' voice almost gets lost in the beautiful layers engulfing it, and songs such as the title track may have worked better as instrumentals. Soft Fall also becomes more drifting on its second half, where songs such as "Laketop Swimmers" and "Over My Head" threaten to wear out their welcome. Still, it's exciting to hear the potential Barthmus' debut had come to fruition, and his commitment to his surreally romantic aesthetic earns him a distinctive place amongst his maximalist contemporaries.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares