Since breaking out as a retro-minded soul singer amid futuristic techno tunes, Jamie Lidell has struggled to reconcile musical identities. Is he the British Maxwell, doomed to slightly update R&B with minor innovations as he did on Jim two years ago, or the energized, knob-twiddling illegitimate spawn of Prince and Aphex Twin of his invigorating live performances? Lidell wields the force of his distinctive quaver on Compass to meld his many personas into one, emerging with a chronicle of romantic dislocation that tumbles seamlessly from simple, sharp balladry to chaotic, distorted blues.
It's easy to initially roll your eyes at the list of guests on Compass, with Beck and Feist headlining, but Lidell absorbs them and players like Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor and R&B percussion vet James Gadson into an oddball crew providing the raw material that Lidell ultimately shapes into a new vision of mid-tempo electro-funk-rock. When "She Needs Me" threatens to soar off into faux-Luther Vandross territory, a rubbery funk bassline keeps it bound to Earth. Feist's and Nikka Costa's backup vocals cement "Enough's Enough" as a credibly sunny workout in a classic Motown vein. But it's the defiantly weird edges that make Compass cohere, like the distorted, looped vocals wiggling behind the piano-and-horn stomp of "The Ring," or the sneaky, icy shuffle of cheating-hearts tale "It's a Kiss." Lidell's no longer donning and ditching genre exercises like so many ironic t-shirts; he's the outsize, unpredictable soul villain holding the compass.