Twenty-one albums in and Bruce Hornsby is a world away from his 1986 belter ‘The Way It Is’. His glorious piano skills are clearly still evident, but what Absolute Zero confirms is that this is an artist who is not one to sit still. After all, this is a man who, since the 80s pop hits, has spent his career performing with The Grateful Dead, Dylan and Bonnie Raitt, winning Grammy Awards for both bluegrass and pop recordings, writing for Broadway musicals and composing the scores for a Spike Lee ESPN documentary and more recently, the Oscar-winning ‘BlacKkKlansman’.
At first listen, Absolute Zero appears to have had a scatter-gun approach to it. The record is jaunty, disparate and complex. But at closer inspection, and knowing Hornsby’s genius, this album has clearly been put together with intricacy and a deep-seated love for testing musical boundaries. yMusic, the NYC-based sextet chamber ensemble who have recently worked with The Staves and Paul Simon, feature heavily on this record. That is no accident. Their contemporary and virtuosic sound is influencing some of the greatest artists and producers out there, and here, mixed with Hornsby’s demand to evolve, is perfect.
Tracks such as ‘The Blinding Light Of Dreams’ and ‘Voyager One’ are bustling, busy numbers echoing the soundscape of New York City streets, whilst in context, discuss the history of racism in America’s Deep South, and the future of the human race and our planet, respectively. With a constant film-like arrangement, the dense composition of strings, horns and quick-beating drums make for two particularly stand-out tracks. yMusic feature on five of the songs on this album, and display their range from the aforementioned numbers, to the slow yet sumptuous ‘Never In This House’ and the pulsating ‘Take You There (Misty)’. The latter was co-written with The Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter and would not sound out of place in a Broadway musical. Think Anaïs Mitchell’s brilliant ‘Hadestown’.
Lyrically, Absolute Zero once again displays Hornsby’s ability to draw inspiration from everything around him – human history, relationships, city streets, science and literary fiction. The work of Don DeLillo and the late David Foster Wallace inparticular had a great deal of influence on the record. ‘White Noise’ the penultimate track on the album, is specifically based on David Foster Wallace’s work, The Pale King.
On a wider level, one particular inspiration, or at least a fundamental factor in the making of this record, was Justin Vernon. The Bon Iver frontman, who is clearly a lover of Hornsby’s (Vernon’s cover of the Hornsby-scored, Bonnie Raitt hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is one of the finest recordings out there), invited Hornsby to perform at his Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival. The event was one that Hornsby has described as “by far the most beautiful experience for me” and where he discovered the sounds of The Staves and yMusic. Hornsby states: “I loved the women, the chamber music group, the whole thing. What they were doing together was adventurous, a different sound.”
The Staves, Sean Carey, Blake Mills and Jack DeJohnette all made contributions to Absolute Zero and again showcase Hornsby’s instinct to work with the most exciting performers in the business. Single ‘Cast-Off’ sums this up, with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Sean Carey duelling vocally with Hornsby, to create a soundscape of luscious tranquillity. The track has clearly been influenced by the work of Vernon and co., from the vocal arrangements, to Mike Lewis and JT Bates’ sax and drums. Hornsby has welcomed in some of our generation’s finest songwriters and it works perfectly.
Whilst Absolute Zero might not be immediately accessible for every listener, Hornsby’s multi-dimensional, multi-faceted work is certainly a grower, with new sounds and cues being discovered with each and every listen. The work of yMusic has certainly brought the best out of this world-renowned pianist and songwriter, whilst the desire to be inspired by the likes of Justin Vernon has indicated Hornsby’s want to evolve, create and break musical barriers with each piece of work.