Mart Avi hasn’t explicitly denied being at large in 18th century Japan, but let’s not rule anything out. After all, not only does the Estonian musician carry the air of a foppish time-traveller – the belted coat and sweeping fringe of a man who once declared he was “born in 1991, but it’s as if I come from the 50s” befitting a Tallinn-based Doctor Who remake – but he’s evidently familiar with Samurai philosopher Yamamoto Tsunetomo.
Tsunetomo’s words ring out at the start of ‘Firefly’, the fifth track on ‘Vega Never Sets’. The world is ending, we are reminded; caught between nostalgic return and Apollonian progress, we are denied both, furnished instead with a death-riddled present in thrall to eschatology. In 2020, that might look like the endless stream of recycled 80s pop tropes circulating through film, TV, and pop music like a neon-lit sluice of Diet Coke. It might also inform our hopelessness in the face of imminent climate disaster.
It’s also an opportunity for rebels like Mart Avi, who excels at dancing between styles more than ever on his latest excursion, taking in ambient, pop, soul, electronica and the occasional breakbeats. His music has always felt caught between eras, while never quite settling in one; the hazy glamour of Roxy Music never feels too far away as a reference point – but then, neither does Scottish auteur Momus. Opening track ‘Feather’ even recalls Wild Beasts in their 2009-2011 purple patch, all swooping falsettos and minimalist synth flourishes. Perhaps it’s unsurprising for an artist who grew up imbibing an eclectic mix of TV and radio shows in a newly independent, post-Soviet Estonia.
But for all its postmodern vim, ‘Vega Never Sets’ nonetheless belong entirely to Avi. While ‘Wire’ and ‘Spark’ showcase the artist’s occasionally misfiring pop sensibilities at full pace, it’s in the album’s noirish closing scenes that he really comes into his own. ‘Endsville’ is an impressively atmospheric ambient piece destined to soundtrack some alternate-dimension Blade Runner reboot, while the piano-led melancholy of ‘Vega’ closes the album with the perfect balance of understatement and flair, Avi’s croon set against an electronic backdrop that beautifully swells and ebbs until it washes away entirely.
Across half a dozen albums, ‘Vega Never Sets’ now stands alongside 2018’s ‘OtherWorld’ as one of the highlights across an extraordinary career that has fallen largely under the UK’s radar. If you only listen to one album this year that explores the presence of death in a fractured but occasionally elegant world, brought together by a supremely talented Eastern European pop eccentric, you could certainly do a lot worse.
Words: Matthew Neale
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