Decades of cultural displacement, political unrest, and even a kidnapping have somehow failed to dim the spirit of Tinariwen, the long-tenured Saharan desert blues outfit from Northern Mali. Over 30 years into their career and with six albums to their credit, the Tuareg band has maintained a global presence and garnered widespread critical acclaim for its distinctive sound fusing West African assouf traditions with a potent multi-guitar attack. For their seventh album, Elwan, Tinariwen reunited with producer Patrick Votan, who also helmed 2014's dramatic Emmaar. Just prior to Emmaar, the band was exiled from Mali, fleeing from the militant Islamist regime Ansar Dine, who denounced popular music as "Satan's music." With their homeland still in conflict, this album marks the second time the embattled musicians were unable to record on native soil. Captured in France, Morocco, and California, Elwan is a work of subtle power, relying less on the atmospheric grace of its predecessors and focusing on the distilled, fine-tuned engine of Tinariwen's percussive core. Overall, the album's production is more immediate and, with its tasteful contingent of rock-oriented guests like Kurt Vile, Mark Lanegan, Alain Johannes, and Matt Sweeney, the arrangements still remain spare and effective. On the slowly unfurling "Ténéré Tàqqàl," gently snaking riffs belie the tension of the lyrics, which make reference to uprisings, both human and animal. On "Imidiwàn N-Àkall-In," a track full of quietly roiling tension, bandleader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib sings "My own people have abandoned their ancestral ways, all that's left is a groaning land full of old people and children." While there is certainly bitterness throughout Elwan's 13 tracks, there is hope, love, and motivation, too. On the dreamy "Nànnuflày," a spray of smoothly interlocking guitar riffs build as Alhabib and the group deliver a call-and-response to which guest vocalist Lanegan replies "No sleepwalking, don't keep me apart, I'm through sleepwalking, God be in my heart." Exiles, explorers, and seekers of inner truth, Tinariwen once again deliver a vital and engaging album.
AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger