The Painter of Dreams: William Orbit Returns

by coldwarnightlife

William Orbit has experienced a few things in his time: building a studio in a squat run by refugees from Franco; collaborating with Madonna; producing Blur; running a progressive house and techno label; rescuing Britney’s career; hoovering up more white lines than the Wembley parking lot; experiencing a psychic break; and then regaining a sense of mission with a set of creative collaborators.

William Orbit (Photo: Simon Helm)

The last of these is what brings us to an event at Dolby’s flagship listening room in Soho. It takes the form of a series of paintings from Orbit’s catalogue, set to tracks from his concept album, The Painter. Animations based on the psychedelic-tinged images roll past as the native Atmos tech breathes space into the individual tracks. It is a high-specification journey through the imagination of a creative mind that has been stretched to its limits.

Orbit is an artistic genius – there is no shade of a doubt. His bag of tricks is deeper than most, and the familiar bubbling of delayed Juno 106 sounds covers The Painter as generously as it has many of his productions over the past four decades. We have come a long way since the dark pulses of “Scorpion” (from 1987’s Strange Cargo) or the dancefloor-led tape collage of “Prepare to Energise” (the 1983 single from Torch Song), but the Orbit touch remains both deft and recognisable. The question is, have the intervening years – and the substances imbibed – dulled and dented it?

Some will think so. Fans of Madonna’s “Ray of Light” or “Beautiful Stranger” might be disappointed by the lack of ecstatic release across the tracks on The Painter. They probably won’t appeal to followers of All Saints searching for the pop heaven of “Pure Shores,” either. Britney’s army of supporters will feel let down by the lack of material to lift the Louisiana lass back up the charts. Audiences from more than one generation, across multiple genres, who have counted on Orbit to move their feet, will have their expectations dashed.

More fool them. Orbit’s own work has always been wide-ranging and even experimental. For every “Water from a Vine Leaf,” there has been a “Last Lagoon.” The songs on The Painter aren’t written for the charts (even if he dabbles in reggaeton with the Canadian singer, Lido Pimienta). They are companions to his visual work as a painter, as well as sonic adventures with old and new collaborators; each of whom has impressed their own mark on the material. Yes, there is a Leftfield remix of “Bank of Wildflowers,” the result of work with Georgia, but the rework isn’t really the point. You don’t expect Polly Scattergood to turn in a substitute for Blur, either. Beth Orton’s presence on two songs might raise hopes for another “She Cries Your Name,” but only for those with preset expectations. Instead, there is a dreaminess and ambience more attuned to the psychedelic imagery of Orbit’s paintings.

There are also tracks with Katie Melua, the late Hukwe Zawose (here in sampled form), Ali Love, Gloria Kaba and Laurie Mayer. The latter has often worked in Orbit’s shadow – so far as the PR machinery has focussed on him alone – but has been a key part of his story since the earliest days of Guerilla and Torch Song. Her own Black Lining album is a lost classic, and both she and Kaba worked on Madonna’s MDNA project with Orbit. As much as anything else, The Painter is about connections, and the circle that Orbit has drawn to it provides a sense of continuity with his previous work. After the challenges he has had, the need for familiarity is understandable – for Orbit and listeners alike.

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