Dirty Beaches’ (aka Alex Zhang Hungtai) sixth album is without words. It is an album about feeling adrift, without a home, lost in limbo. And not that good kind of limbo, fuelled by rum and a blatant disregard for your lower back. The bad kind of limbo, the transitional state of being neither one thing nor the other.
For Hungtai, that seems to be something close to his heart. Through the geographical changes he went through growing up (from Taipei to Montreal via Honolulu) to his recent past drifting through Europe, he’s always been a wanderer. Occasionally he checks back in, usually accompanied by an album of some description and then away he heads once more. Back on the road, destination unknown.
A man searching for something. On his last record, the double album ‘Drifters/Love Is The Devil’, it was looking for meaning in the end of a relationship and the second half of that duo, the the almost entirely instrumental ‘Love Is The Devil’, set out the blueprint for ‘Stateless’.
Atmospheric, ambient soundscapes ridden with longing. On ‘Love Is The Devil’ it felt personal, relatable, perhaps due to the knowledge of what had inspired its creation, perhaps due to its more grounded, poppier first half. ‘Stateless’ doesn’t have those ties, Hungtai has described it as a “small contribution to the vast library of diaspora”, something which for most is a bit less easy to empathise with than having your heart broken.
But you can’t criticise his ambition and ‘Stateless’ clearly has loftier goals. It’s not surprising to find that Hungtai has been recently involved in scoring films, it’s very easy to imagine these songs as the soundtrack to some as yet unmade feature. The shimmering tones of ‘Displaced’ that mournfully build and settle like fog across a landscape, the solemn, foreboding ‘Stateless’, which throbs underneath a wheezing organ, while distant strangled stabs of saxophone wail in the distance, they’re widescreen, textured and abundantly cinematic.
But while intriguing and often beautiful, it’s also a little frustrating. There’s a sense that this is only half a story, half a tale told. ‘Pacific Ocean’ manages to feel like it’s on the cusp of bursting into life for the entirety of its seven minute running time, but then it ends, with no conclusion ever reached. Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps that is what Hungtai was aiming for. It’s just a shame it means that ‘Stateless’ comes off as slightly unsatisfying.