Dntel’s ironically named Human Voice is a strange simulation of sound. Simultaneously stoic and expressive, in one of the most intriguing albums to emerge thus far this year, as it follows a turbulent narrative guided by a synthetic chorus of carefully calculated, computational sounds—almost too real to be made of just ones and zeros.
Complex and multifaceted, there’s something remarkable about the fact that it is a work that revolves entirely around inanimate “voices,” electronic instruments that sound ironically human-like in their emotive qualities and simplistic presentation. Strangely catchy and accessible techno, it’s part of a continuous project perceived as a self-admitted “concept-driven collaboration for indie rock people.”
It makes sense though, as Dntel is the moniker of former Sub Pop sweetheart, Jimmy Tamborello of Postal Service fame. Taking on an amped up, cyborg-like edge that’s most likely been bubbling beneath the surface ever since those “Such Great Heights” days, he said in a previous interview that he approaches songs from a more “indie rock” sort of lens, as it’s something more “attainable” than what he perceives as intimidating electronic music.
Starting off as a tonal and almost jazz-inspired in its syncopated polyrhythms and staccato phrasing, Human Voice begins with a dizzying title track that twists and winds its way through scat-like percussion and warped noise effects.
Then, if possible, things turn aggressive with the almost juke-esque vibe of “If I Stay a Minute”, which whinnies and whistles past the casual listener at a mile a minute. Complete with glitch-paste vocals and a set of electrified arpeggios that hurtle past one with an incredible agility, it’s definitely an attention-grabbing genre-bender that abruptly ends and leaves you in a perpetual state of “what just happened?”
A definitive journey, there is a discernible climax (“Foraya”) that combines Tamborello’s knack for creating fast music that feigns slow and his signature use of hypnotic drum loops.
It wouldn’t be a proper narrative without the gradual comedown either, which makes the ride all sorts of strange and magical and wonderful. A soft nostalgic haze permeating the final 20 minutes of playful buzzing and effervescent glimmer with a sense of calm far removed from the likes of the hyper first half. However, this construction in and of itself seems strangely artificial, as if that was Tamborello’s intention all along. There is the occasional disjointed moment, whether that be an odd percussive element or a misaligned backbeat, which at least for me led to a distinct yet undefinable feeling of discord during key transition points.
Especially jolting was the sudden appearance of the very cartoonish “Bike Path”, a strange, cheery non sequitur smashed in between two very deep, aggressive clubbish tracks. When one listens closely it makes sense though, as it’s almost sinister in its glee. Almost Tododoki-level in its inescapably bubblegum-esque aura–intimidating, overwhelming and completely audacious.
Human Voices has a very natural, circular way of storytelling. A narrative that feels like it’s somewhat improvisational and constantly in motion, much like the instrumental loops that make up its foundation. As such, things feel like they’ve been put in slow-motion in the second half, with a few wonky phrases dotting tracks like “Bay Loop”, as well as the imagined synapse-like sparks emanating from the appropriately named “Connections”. Loping, sliding and gliding slowly out of the picture, it’s one of the few albums that feels like it has an organic end. Something to ponder instead of just satisfying.