Over the last decade or so, Portland's Paul Dickow has cut a career through house, ambient, and dub, filtering his tracks through lenses that are equal parts tropical pastel and Cascadian grayscale. His sound's spacey, searching quality has generated a catalog that feels less like a progression than a constant exploration. But this isn't to suggest that Dickow is wandering aimlessly. On the contrary, his records have consistently depicted an artist who is immensely comfortable with his palette, satisfied with etching endless variations on a few trustworthy motifs. For many contemporary producers, the internet affords the chance for recognition based upon the strength of early, unpolished tracks; as such, constant progression, a hunger for new technology, and being part of a continuum have all become common narratives within electronic music. Dickow is certainly not a luddite, but he does call the wisdom of accelerationism into question on his latest, self-titled LP, which is appropriately being released on a new label called Peak Oil.
It's then fitting that Strategy opens with ambience recycled from "I Have to Do This Thing," a track so fine that Dickow has previously released it twice—in its original, pumping house form and as the near-beatless finale to his 2007 album, Future Rock. Its appearance here exemplifies the project's fluidity. Several of Dickow's other trademarks are also present throughout—submerged but resonant bass, highlife guitar, shimmering synthetics—but when that ambience drops out a minute into "Sugar Drop," it's immediately apparent that the producer's mindset has shifted.
Dickow released the largely ambient Music For Lamping in 2008, but Future Rock was his last ostensibly pop album, in that it attempted to congeal his various interests with stricter structures, as well as the occasional vocal. On Future Rock, Dickow's voice was often vocoded and quiet in the mix, but nevertheless displayed a shy optimism in lines like, "You can't roll forward/Looking over your shoulder." The mood was pensive but easygoing, and if the record strove to make a critical statement, it wasn't easily decipherable.
This is not true of Strategy. The slinky funk of "Sugar Drop" recalls bubbly recent efforts by Heatsick and Plvs Vltra, a comparison backed by its processed, semi-unintelligible schoolyard chants about "Coca-cola surges" and "ice cream swirl[s]." When Dickow's mechanized vocal mentions a "sugared-up world," however, the track is suddenly, if subtly, charged. It's an unwilling pop song, and the artist is exhaustedly delivering his lines as if by rote. On "Objects of Desire," things are even more downcast, as guest vocalist Thomas Meluch (of Benoit Pioulard) tiredly laments, "I see it/I need it." Again, the track's backdrop, marked by shimmering guitar and synth interplay, is deceptively beautiful. Jubilantly polyrhythmic and laced with a nosediving bassline, it chugs forward into near chaos, against its narrator's best wishes. It's easily analogous to Talking Heads—the song offers impeccably tight, tropical pop, clouded over by vocalized dread.
"Baby Fever" turns Dickow's anxieties inward. Its arrangement, replete with live horns, matches the riotous intensity of the best Afrobeat. But where its vocal is poised for politicization, Dickow delivers direct, half-spoken lyrics about the titular "fever." "Everybody's got it," he sings. He goes on about, "little round faces" and "fuzzy proxies," which, "are not quite the same," because they, "never leave the nest." Is procreation becoming a societal problem as parents produce children in assembly lines and then are confused when they, "never grow up?" Is Dickow's generation exceptionally immature? Or is the topic a personal insecurity—is the narrator losing friends to parenthood? Who or what are these "fuzzy proxies," exactly? These questions are never resolved, but they loom above the punchy arrangement.
While the instrumental "Friends and Machines" offers a breather in the form of lilting but energetic Afro-house, the sense of drudgery returns on "Saturn's Day." Dickow employs a sluggish pace to complement couplets like, "Every day is exactly the same/Saturday is just a name," and drops in a solo that's heavily redolent of Malian desert blues. Closer "Dilemmas" is all widescreen, instrumental psychedelia. It's set apart by its expansiveness, maybe aiming for some kind of calming, cosmic conclusion to the prior tracks' stress. It isn't, however, enough to shake the sense of discomfort brought on by Dickow's lyricism.
Strategy is a studiously produced record, and the gap between electronic and organic instrumentation is frankly imperceptible. But it's the vocals—absent on so many Strategy releases—that keep it a provocative listen, as they pose more than a few pertinent questions about where society is headed. In a largely apolitical electronic-music landscape, this is laudable.