No-Man

Returning Jesus

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    8
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The fourth No-Man album proper shows that the duo doesn't simply continue its quality into another decade, but continues its bent for exploration. If not focused on beats and loops this time around, in terms of taking the signifiers of "mature" music -- string accompaniment, delicacy, understatement, and more -- and giving them life and real meaning, No-Man hits another indisputable high with Returning Jesus. Tim Bowness' voice is still a seductive, encompassing flow of words and emotion, while Steve Wilson seems to be ever more the musical polymath in life. With the help of eight guests, including such semi-regulars as Porcupine Tree bassist Colin Edwin, flute/sax player Theo Travis, and Japan veteran Steve Jansen on drums, the two create nine sweepingly elegant pieces. The emphasis throughout is actually on understating rather than piling everything on, a less-is-more approach that suits both the lyrics and the music as a whole. The end result feels like a companion piece to Talk Talk's majestic Laughing Stock, with its blend of jazz experimentalism and heartfelt delivery, and a more overtly pop sensibility thanks to Bowness' delivery. The opening track, "Only Rain," is just spectacular, with fragile synth-string orchestration by Wilson and Ian Carr's trumpet subtly dictating the flow of the piece. "Outside the Machine" equals that particular high in different ways; the overdubbed vocal choir from Bowness is a gentle offset to his own lead, while Wilson's arrangements and his extended instrumental break on guitar and piano are pure treasure. Two cuts resurface from the Carolina Skeletons EP, the title track and "Close Your Eyes," here appearing in an extended version that isn't vastly different from the original, but keeps all the beauty intact. Perhaps the most interesting track of all is the title cut, a minimal combination of ringing percussion and squirrelly keyboards suddenly given a vaster scope via Wilson's guitar and Bowness' rich, wonderful vocals.

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