More people than ever, I think, are still looking for a philosophy on life that offers any comfort. During the New Year, a time when we deliberately parse our minds for hope, I thought about the paradox of interconnectedness: how, by superficially feeling closer together than ever before, we might never feel further apart.
At least the world that creates this impasse provides the consolation of discovery.
One such epicurean pleasure has been the music of Sleepthief, the project of composer and producer Justin Elswick. Justin’s collaborative work with artists including Caroline Lavelle, Coury Palermo, Zoe Johnston, Kirsty Hawkshaw, and Jody Quine (star of Mortal Longing) creates a spectrum of luxurious voices for a distinctive and sumptuous sound.
The genre overlap between ambient, electro and new age has been dominated by the likes of Delerium and Conjure One. But Justin’s work is more familiar and solipsistic than either of these. There’s less the extroverted ‘world music’ feel of an Enigma or Deep Forest, and more the exploration of the self.
Some ambient artists out there are creating exquisite soundscapes. (Øystein Ramfjord, aka Amethystium, has been a favourite for years, and even Alphaville are not without some beautiful instrumental pieces.) Few compare to Justin, though, and that’s evident by the calibre of performers who delight in working with him.
Sleepthief tracks were selected for both my 2010 and 2011 epilogues here for their ability to evoke heightened emotional states. They create a kind of aura that elicits both happiness and sadness, yet still transcends them both. There’s searching, reaching, yearning, in ways that are often complex and rarely satisfactory or resolved.
I’ve long described Skimming Stones as the most touching song I’ve ever heard. It’s marked by tragedy that haunts a lost lover drifting into the memory of euphoric innocence, of heartbreak and loss, and of what might have been. It’s like a great novel conjured to life by musical ekphrasis.
Following his first two albums, Dawnseeker and Labyrinthine Heart, a third album has been preceded by a new track, Mortal Longing, which maintains the dual powers of intrigue and mysticism, fascination and passion, that characterise his work. ‘Mortal Longing’ explores the liminality between life and death, between earth and the ethereal, between humankind and the otherworldly.
I can’t control the aching heat in my soul
It whispers your face and I’m falling in grace
Obsession has taken my heart
Feeling the pulse in hand
When can I take a stand
I’m trapped in what used to be
I need to be free
Cause I’m just human
My body my soul you haunt me
My heart beats fast for you
Abandon my breath it’s Mortal Longing
Singer Jody Quine has described the difficult journey of lyricising the song, which eventually found a route of intoxication and limerence.
When Justin gave me the title ‘Mortal Longing’ and the ideas behind it I struggled with how to best embody it lyrically. What I heard and followed was diving into the idea of physical addiction to the point of death almost and yet having it also be the saviour. Choosing the right words that weren’t cliché or cheesy can be difficult, but I think I found some very strong and vivid choices that portray the physical responses of being in love and also cry out for breath.
The language of the song, rapt with entrapment and enslavement, yearning for release, takes me back to the gripping dialogues between soul and body, inspired by the engraving of Pia Desideria.
The soul finds such potential beyond the body’s capability, but cannot exist without its ‘prison’. Thus emerges a mercurial impasse, where feeling leaves us in the tremulous state between life and death.
And the video – as ever, made with care and endeavour – envisions that bittersweet life allegory where the never-ending chase for what we thought we always wanted is never quite fulfilled. Always somehow out of reach.
And why is that? Is it because we, as humankind, don’t have the capacity to live our imaginations? Is it because, in the dulcet tones of Robert Browning, man’s reach must always exceed his grasp? Is it because fate and fortune conspire to get in the way? Or is it because we find ourselves insecure – unworthy of, and inferior to, our greatest wishes? Just too good; just too high; just too much.
Back in November, I thought about life and its potential: “Ideally, we want our lives to lead upwards trajectories. When somebody hits particular heights for themselves, they struggle to contemplate living within or below that potential. That’s the intricate psychology of accomplishment.” [New Horizons]
We are, as the song reminds us, just human. That carries its limitations, but its great successes too. Sometimes it takes the creative imagination to remind us that, as a close friend of mine said to me recently, in the search for truth, finding beauty can be a fair reward.
Begging Justin’s pardon for all that features above, and written in the best of faith that his art is being put to good use.