Every seven days, we break down our favourite album of the week. For our inaugural essay, we selected Ryan Hemsworth’s Elsewhere.
I’ve never met Ryan Hemsworth but I did see him DJ four or five years ago in Ottawa. He was personable and informal, lowering the volume periodically to greet us, and quick to switch tracks. At the time, Hemsworth was everywhere, or at least everywhere in the blogosphere. He was producing cloud rap and releasing melancholic SoundCloud tunes with smeary vocal samples and colourful, destabilizing remixes of zeitgeist-grabbing artists like Lorde and Grimes and Chief Keef. He was making dance tracks with rap drums and rap tracks with Game Boy synths. His beats could be moody, but they also twinkled, as did his sense of humour: one of his edits saw Chicago drill rap being half-sung over a meditative Japanese movie soundtrack; another gave Danny Brown a kawaii makeover. He did still-transcendent remixes of Frank Ocean and Beyoncé and Cat Power. His music was soft and melodic and emotional and funny, and soon enough it all started to sound like him, no matter the genre. It was beginning to get pretty popular too.
Don’t get the wrong idea; this isn’t a eulogy. Hemsworth is still here. His new album, Elsewhere, is out today, and it might make him bigger than he’s ever been. Elsewhere is a really enjoyable listen; the kind of summer record that somehow also sounds great in a warm car during a snowstorm. At the same time, it’s is a curious and provoking listen, especially if you and Hemsworth have some history. I went into the album as though I was meeting up with an old friend: I was wondering what he’d been up to, how his sound was going to hold up in 2018, if Elsewhere was going to toe the same line between bedroom pop and dance music that his last record, 2014’s Alone for the First Time, had. Instead, I found something else: music where Hemsworth is simultaneously more present and more absent than he’s ever been.
Being both present and absent is nothing new to Hemsworth. Despite his lengthy list of collaborators—Elsewhere alone has seventeen featured guests over twelve tracks—Hemsworth has traditionally been a solitary figure. In an interview with Noisey from last May, singer-songwriter Daniela Andrade, who has worked with the producer for years, noted that she had only ever worked with Hemsworth online. “I have to admit that I’ve never actually met him in person,” she explains, adding that their “collaborations have only existed via email.” Later, she says, “I find it really interesting how everyone I’ve met in the music and in the film industry says the same things about him—his kindness and his shyness.” In a 2015 interview, Hemsworth introduced the members of his Secret Songs label—who hail from places as varied as Seattle, Norway, Edmonton, and Tokyo—as his “internet family,” revealing that he met most of them via SoundCloud, Instagram, Tumblr, or Twitter, and sharing that, as with Andrade, much of their work together has been done “via Dropbox and email.”
Of course, musicians piecing together tracks from different corners of the globe is nothing new, but Hemsworth in particular seems like a product of this phenomenon: he’s worked with musicians as varied as Mitski and E-40, Tinashe and Baths, Alex G and Tory Lanez—conceivably most via the web. The internet has made possible instances of long-distance connection and coming together in ways that have never existed before. It’s also haunted by absence. Hemsworth, in an interview with The Georgia Straight, laughs about working through email: “you send something to someone, and then you basically have to bug them every week or two for them to pass it back.”
Free play between presence and absence characterizes Hemsworth’s music as well. On his releases prior to Elsewhere, he was busy defining a sonic identity that drew from rap, pop, video game soundtracks, and bedroom electronics. As one reviewer declared, “Whether he’s flipping Tinashe or Blink-182, it always sounds like Ryan Hemsworth.” When collaborating, a unique aesthetic is part of what enables Hemsworth to, as he says in the Straight interview, “push someone a little further in a direction they might not go on their own.” At the same time, part of his goal as a producer has always been to bend that sound in service of other musicians: in that same interview, Hemsworth notes, “When I work with people, I’m most comfortable when I sit back and create a platter for them to do their thing on.” In that sense, producers occupy an interesting position; no matter how recognizable their presence may be, they’re building around a hole—a space for a sample, a vocalist, or an MC.
It is far less obvious at first glance that this is a Ryan Hemsworth record. Part of the refinement here comes from the producer’s efforts to fit himself into the spaces around his guests.
In some ways, Elsewhere finds Hemsworth unusually present. The album follows a tour break in Atlanta that saw him meeting people face to face; in an interview in May, he recalls, “A lot of rap started happening just because I was in the same place as so many people. The writing was able to go really quickly.” Elsewhere crystallizes Hemworth’s reputation as a fan and a curator; apart from internet personality Joji and New York rapper Nebu Kiniza, a lot of the names featured on the album have flown under the radar, and it’s Hemsworth vision, taste, and unifying aesthetic that found a way to fit Robin Dann, of Toronto jazz-pop outfit Bernice, British Afrobeat duo NewAgeMuzik, and the popular kawaii producer Tomggg on the same album and have it make sense.
Most of all, Elsewhere demonstrates the strides Hemsworth has made in refining his sound. There’s discipline at work here; in places, Hemsworth identifies himself with the thinnest of strokes, never compromising his ability to stretch out in new directions. Both “Sade” and “One of One” slip his distinctive smudged vocal samples into the background. “For U” applies the same kind of juxtaposition between rap and meditative ambient music that was so funny on Hemsworth’s infamous Chief Keef remix, but here the effect is subtler and more emotional, adding layers to Nebu Kiniza’s chorus.
Sometimes it seems like Hemsworth has simply become a more adept producer. “Lagoons” plaintive arpeggios would fit pretty well on 2013’s melancholic Still Awake EP if the sounds weren’t noticeably fuller. Similarly, “Ego Ride’s” warped carousel ride is classic Hemsworth, but the production is cleaner (without sacrificing any of the wooziness). “Special Girl” and “Beep Beep” turn to the kinds of woodblock and marimba sounds that have been in his production for years, but with a renewed sense of focus and proportion. Elsewhere sounds like the work of an artist who’s embracing the dynamics of his sound.
At the same time, being a curator is about spotlighting others, and Elsewhere places a much greater emphasis on Hemsworth’s collaborators than Alone for the First Time, and much of his other work for that matter. As a result, it is far less obvious at first glance that this is a Ryan Hemsworth record. Part of the refinement here comes from the producer’s efforts to fit himself into the spaces around his guests. Moreover, there are lengthy stretches of this album, such as the funky groove of “This Feeling” and “Four Season’s” afrobeat, that sound like nothing he’s done before. “This Feeling” in particular surprised me during my first listen. It sounds like a Disclosure tune; a jump I never would have expected.
Just when I thought I’d pinned Hemsworth down, he was slipping through my fingers, off in a series of new directions. In a way, that DJ set in Ottawa was pretty characteristic of Hemsworth’s career thus far: too much great music, too little time, and a warmth that both hides and highlights his distance from his audience.