In the opening monologue of The Big Lebowski, Sam Elliott says, “Sometimes, there’s a man — well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.” Music is full of examples like this, songs and albums that capture the essence of an era, from classical and romantic composers to late-60s psychedelia, 77 punk, 80s hair metal, early-90s grunge, late-90s drum-and-bass, and so on. Yet every once in a while, an album comes along that stands outside of the time in which it was recorded, an album of such complex greatness and astounding joy that one may gloss over initial listenings under the subconscious impression they’ve not just heard this music before, but lived with it for decades.
True, in some ways we have heard Celestial Electric before. London multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee has professed a deep admiration for music made between 1967 and 1973, spending years crate-digging and researching past recordings, a passion that continues to this day. The influence of that era has been demonstrated throughout Lee’s impressive solo catalogue (under the name Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra). The same can be heard on Celestial Electric, his highly anticipated full-length collaboration with slick Los Angeles vocalist and kindred spirit AM.
Shawn Lee and AM prove to be a perfect match. Largely responsible for the record’s sound, Lee is a bona fide genius. With such an expansive record collection to pull from, many artists can feel either paralyzed by the weight of music history and resort to making crappy lo-fi psych chillwave or simply regurgitate those records, creating watered-down facsimiles or obvious mashups and remixes. Lee instead manages to take and recreate precise slices of ephemerality and reconstitute them into astounding new forms, at once familiar and refreshing. But AM is not just along for the ride. The timbre of his voice lands somewhere between bossa nova legend Antonio Carlos Jobim and Junip’s José González, the latter akin to minor 70s pop-star Gilbert O’Sullivan. His performances with Tropicália founder Caetano Veloso and Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter Charlotte have built his reputation as a transcendental, world-class artist, and with this album, his reputation is cemented.
Pooling their efforts into Celestial Electric, the duo have pulled off the nigh impossible: They have made an album that sounds now, blurring funk, pop, and “world music” genres beyond their established capabilities, yet remaining so true to a classic aesthetic that the album could be dug out of a crate without a label and confound listeners to pinpoint its origin. The staccato guitar line on “Somebody Like You” references The Clash; the synth flourishes on “Winter Sun” evoke The Steve Miller Band and Heart; the warm AM Gold trumpet and keyboard lines on “Down The Line,” the obligatory chart cover of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ one-hit “Jackie Blue” from 1975, and all the tremendously catchy choruses add up to a classic album in both the vintage and quality sense.
Yet, there are things like the synth work on lead single “Dark Into Light” that give the listener flashes of MGMT. The round bass sound on “Can’t Figure It Out” is a page out of Zero 7’s When It Falls. The bass groove of “The Signal” is just a little more dance-punk than disco. All these elements bring the album well into the 21st century. Ultimately, Celestial Electric could only have been made now, and it stands on its own merits. As the future sons and daughters of generations come to pass, the genius of Shawn Lee will be widely recognized. With AM up front, Lee is like The Funk Brothers of Motown.