Italians Do It Better leader Johnny Jewel has an array of musical faces, all of which use electronic means to some degree to touch on different aspects of the sensory experience. On his latest solo album, Digital Rain, which comes out tomorrow, Jewel expertly dives into mind-expanding, contemplative synthscapes in service of a monsoon of a concept.
More specifically, Jewel’s various bands and other projects cover all sorts of facets of the human condition. The dreamy synth-pop and dark-disco underbelly of Chromatics is there for you when you need to dance, cry, or go on a night drive. Desire is for the complexities of romance and, well, desire. Glass Candy is with you to celebrate all night with bright lights and unbridled energy. Symmetry is the synth score for the film in your head. Jewel’s synthetic-organic solo compositions are the diverse palette you actually hear in films and television (and also imaginary versions of those media). He has other projects, and all of his projects exceed the above boundaries, but generally they each serve a beautiful purpose.
With that in mind, Digital Rain is certainly a Johnny Jewel record, but it’s not like what he’s crafted in the past. There’s no Dougie Jones-style “Windswept” theme or “Tick of the Clock.” The closest the tracks come to previous cues could be some of Jewel’s tracks on his solo instrumental releases like The Key and, ever so slightly, his production work on In Mirrors’ Escape from Berlin.
Primarily, it’s a full-on synthscape centered on wetness — each synthesizer expression on the record’s 19 tracks shimmers, glistens, splashes, and downpours in a contemplative, ambient expression of precipitation. There are even cuts drenched in subterranean moisture, with each splash of water reverberating throughout the passageways.
For example, “The City of Roses” presents precipitation through blissful synth pads and trickling drops of high-pitched resonance. “What If” features arp-laden expressions of wetness with lingering strings and shifting emotions. And “Houston” is a cascade of pensive and captivating ideas.
Generally, the tracks are less like score cues with cohesive themes and more like sound design meant to evoke certain moods or memories. It’s an album you listen to when you need some music to kickstart your contemplation, but nothing that will dominate your experience. This is ideal.
That said, these being Jewel cuts, there’s a cinematic quality about them that will grab your attention and help tell some story — if you want them to, that is. An artier, more daring film could employ Digital Rain to great effect.
And given what Jewel has said about his motivation behind making the album, one could easily see utility for this body of work.
“After living a few years in a desert climate, I realized I was nostalgic for the constant presence of precipitation from every city I once called home,” Jewel said in a press release when Italians Do It Better released the title track with an announcement about the album earlier this month.
So he tapped into the various precipitation phenomena in Houston, Portland, and Montreal. Hail and floods for Houston — hail that would make the rat-tat-tat sound of ricocheting ice and the destructive floodwaters that would destroy his mother’s house thrice. Portland, being in the Pacific Northwest, is naturally wet a lot of the time — drizzle abounds. For Montreal, where his daughter was born, snow reigns and ice stays.
“The desert is constant, and I love this repetitious ritual of Los Angeles so much,” Jewel continued. “As moisture and humid weather seem more and more like a dream I once had or a fading memory of the places I fell in love with, I wanted to make a record without drums, without lyrics, vague in form. Each track morphing and eclipsing the next like the ever-changing movement of clouds obscuring the moon.”
Overall, every time I’ve listened to this album, which is many times, I’ve been struck by how each track’s blend of constructed formlessness and engaging sonics serves as a catalyst for me to dig deeper in my brain to reach further outside myself.
Jewel’s creative process for Digital Rain took him through an intimate nostalgia journey back to specific moments and emotions tied to places he used to live and the weather inextricably linked to those memories. For me, it has led me down the precipitation of my own life — the onslaught of water in all forms in Minneapolis; the rare but exciting snows in winter in Daegu, South Korea; and the desperate rains of New York City.
This is a record I’ll keep with me when I need to figure things out and I imagine you, fine reader, will discover it has the same value for you.