After spending several years composing music for films -- most notably 2016's Golden Globe- and Academy Award-nominated Dustin O'Halloran collaboration Lion -- Hauschka's Volker Bertelmann tells his own stories on What If. On his previous solo album Abandoned City, his inspirations were tangible and the music focused on the mainstay of his work, the prepared piano; this time, Bertelmann lets his imagination and arrangements run wild as he speculates on what life could be like in the not-too-distant future. To express these fantasies, Hauschka looks to rhythms inspired by hip-hop, superhumanly fast and accurate player pianos, and an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer and Roland Jupiter synth that add just the right amount of sci-fi wonder. Salon Des Amateurs already proved that Hauschka can incorporate unexpected sounds and sources into his music seamlessly, but there's still something special about What If's vignettes of loss, frustration, and occasional whimsy. A subtle political undercurrent runs through tracks such as "I Can't Find Water," where the prepared piano scrabbles as a melody shimmers like a mirage just out of reach, or "Constant Growth Fails," where the player piano's frantic arpeggios evoke Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi score. Though each of the album's songs are self-contained, Bertelmann's concerns sometimes suggest narrative connections; the startling "Nature Fights Back," the synth battle of "Familiar Things Disappear," and the reflective "Trees Exist Only in Books" play like a musical triptych of the world consuming itself. As vivid as What If's abstract worries are, some of the album's best moments are the ones that feel personal, whether it's the distance implied on "My Kids Live on Mars" or the spacious yet tender "I Can't Express My Deep Love," on which Hauschka does just that by imagining that he cannot. Here and throughout What If, the ways Hauschka explores the possibilities of his music -- and the future -- make it one of his most intellectually and emotionally engaging albums.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares