Over the last five years, Sam Shepherd has built up an impressive collection of singles, EPs, and collaborations as Floating Points, from the pounding rhythms of his 2011 Shadows EP, to the shimmering house single “Sparkling Controversy”, to the funk-driven splendor of last year’s Nuits Sonores/Nectarines 12-inch. Shepherd has always been adept at blending together sounds from different realms, incorporating strains of soul and R&B into tracks fit for the dance floor. On his debut album, Elaenia, he strays from that hybridism, putting together a cohesive, involving piece inspired heavily by jazz that will likely confound and impress fans who have been following his output for the past half-decade.
Shepherd is typically thought of as a producer and DJ, but Elaenia finds him refining his strengths as a composer. Strings and horns embellish his electronic templates, while live drumming offers a spontaneous energy that breathes life into Shepherd’s work. Elaenia is an engrossing, contemplative record, with songs like “Argente” serving as calming, trancelike meditations. Following the example of Four Tet’s excellent There Is Love in You, Shepherd has broken away from the dance floor to craft a confident and fulfilling electronic record meant to be enjoyed in quieter spaces.
Shepherd indicated in an interview with Pitchfork that he thought of the album as a single 42-minute piece. While each of the seven tracks could stand on their own as discrete entities, the album also works as a fluid, singular organism. Songs bleed into each other, as the hypnotic build of “Argente” climaxes with an anxious rush that serves as the backbone for the more upbeat “Thin Air”. Movements ebb and flow; the title track, while weightless on its own, serves as a natural respite after the blissful head rush of “Silhouettes (I, II, III)”. As a full composition, Elaenia takes the listener on an engrossing journey from the nebulous crawl of “Nespole” to the swirling cacophony that concludes the album on “Peroration Six”.
“Peroration Six” is an undeniable highlight on Elaenia. Like the finale of an action film sequence, the song builds up steadily, with its drums rising over the course of five minutes and a flourish of strings creating a palpable sense of anticipation. The piece comes together in a whirlwind of noise, building towards a huge finish before abruptly cutting out mid-thought. The exercise is a masterclass in pacing and playing with expectations, leaving the listener stunned at the lack of resolution.
Since Elaenia functions as one complete movement rather than a collection of individual pieces, its highs and lows can be slightly exaggerated. The lulls of the title track feel slight after the dramatic centerpiece of “Silhouettes (I, II, III)”, and the juxtaposition is pronounced to the point where it deflates the momentum. The sequencing is one of the record’s strengths, but at times it can feel as though the restraint of the album’s midsection goes on too long.
But when the album goes at full blast, it does so forcefully and near-flawlessly. It’s easy to see why “Silhouettes (I, II, III)” was the single; the track doesn’t just feel like the peak of Elaenia, but of Shepherd’s career to date. It’s Shepherd’s mission statement, a tapestry of interlocking discordant sounds that slowly morphs from scattered confusion to tight focus. Tom Skinner’s drumming, on full display here, drives the track through ebbs and flows, from the rising action of the first movement to the swelling strings and choral vocals that pop up midway through all the way to the end, when it cuts out and Shepherd leaves us with a beautiful orchestral denouement.
Elaenia stands out as a remarkably assured debut album from an artist who took his time putting it together. Shepherd reportedly took as long as six years to finalize songs on the record, and the effort shows. Elaenia feels like the result of countless hours of tinkering, a meticulously crafted work. The album may be a departure from the more club-focused tracks Shepherd is known for, but also feels like the summation of what he’s been building towards this whole time.
Essential Tracks: “Silhouettes (I, II, III)”, “Thin Air”, and “Peroration Six”