The debut album from London act Maps (aka James Chapman) was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2007. Being put in the company of critical and fan favorites like Amy Winehouse and Bat for Lashes isn’t too shabby for a newcomer, but it also sets impossibly high standards for the follow-up. Two years later Chapman has finally released his new effort and it’s not too different from the first. On the one hand, that’s a disappointment. Then again, he seems to have played it safe so as to avoid major pitfalls, and he did do that.
So where does that leave Turning the Mind? Comfortably in the zone of “good…but not great.” The album is a solid effort that’s cohesive from beginning to end, but that’s not what prevents it from being something particularly noteworthy. The fact that interesting ideas are diluted into hints of other acts is the problem. Much of Turning the Mind sounds like the work of a Fischerspooner fan who wants to be less flashy and more meditative-right down to the cover art. Instead of an over-the-top art ensemble, however, Chapman has chosen to be a more reserved one-man act. On “Love Will Come”, a choir’s harmonies and a drum beat are looped backwards until the song’s real rhythm begins. It’s an upbeat yet midtempo rhythm that overlaps with Chapman’s monotone vocals repeating “love will come” and a would-be DJ’s shout of “come”. It sounds like a throwback to a dance club that’s still reveling in Moby’s Play. It’s accessible and fun, yet it doesn’t offer anything as notable as any song on that album. I’ll say right now that once I accepted that the album wouldn’t get too risky, I was able to enjoy it more.
For example, “Nothing” is five minutes of musical pleasure. Racing drums and a carousel melody form a nightmarish dance track that’s ripe for a movie murder scene set in a colorful club full of sexy people. “I tell you this for free / When you lie with him / Don’t make me lie to him / Don’t contact me” is said with such a cold delivery that Chapman sounds like a determined stalker, which is an interesting twist on something so ready for the dance floor. “Die Happy, Die Smiling” is another grim number that relies on the dichotomy between the music and the lyrics to create some notable tension.
The album grows darker as it progresses, and the listening experience is consequently more interesting. However, it doesn’t feel like it builds up to something. Burying dark or bittersweet emotions in dance music isn’t new, and recently it’s been done very well by Hot Chip, Cut Copy, and LCD Soundsystem. Therefore, while I can accept that Turning the Mind isn’t going to break new ground, most likely on purpose, I feel as if Cameron sets up the expectation. Why pull us deeper into this macabre story if he’s not going to surprise us? The framework for a narrative exists, but some of the chapters are missing.
Turning the Mind doesn’t have a single bad track, and it’s an enjoyable listening experience. The album only falls short when you realize Cameron shows the possibility of something more interesting. The Mercury Prize nomination wasn’t a fluke. If you’ve seen his live performances, you know he’s a talented act that has something exciting to offer. Blame it on sophomore jitters or the sterile environment of a recording studio-either way, Maps is a noteworthy act who has just released a really nice record.
Turning the Mind