Devin Townsend – Lightwork Review

Years ago, in another life, I remember talking about the philosopher John Rawls with a grad school classmate. Having read too deeply in poststructuralism and critical theory, I made some sneeringly insufferable attack on Rawls, but my classmate defended him with a perfectly sincere truth: “Aw, he just wanted everyone to be okay.” Based on the evidence of his latest album Lightwork, it seems clear that Devin Townsend also just wants everyone to be okay.

Even a casual follower of Devin Townsend’s musical path over the years can likely tell you that it has tread a kaleidoscopic range of styles. Lightwork is, as the title suggests, on the lighter side of things, and yet it still touches on all the elements that define Townsend’s music regardless of a given album’s style: immaculately detailed production, lush atmosphere, heavily layered guitars, a myriad of vocals (from pinched wails to operatic crooning), pop-indebted melody, and impeccable songwriting.

The primary mode in which Lightwork operates is straightforwardly heavy pop, or maybe synth-prog operatic rock. Whatever you call it, there are still echoes of many of Townsend’s previous explorations. “Call of the Void” and “Moonpeople” frequently move with the same kind of restrained yet determined stride that marked Townsend’s album Ki, while songs like “Equinox,” “Lightworker,” and “Celestial Signals” feel almost like nocturnal counterparts to the poppy extroversion of Addicted and Epicloud.

“Lightworker” opens with orchestral fanfare before pulling back to pastoral acoustics, and wastes very little time before introducing one of the album’s most irresistible, anthemic choruses. The lyrics here are a direct nod to the practice of loving kindness meditation: “May your heart be filled with peace.” The song’s second verse comes in seamlessly on a waltz beat, but this – as with many things on this album – is a passing thought that says its part and then drifts along the river and out of sight. Even as the song is affirming, it features some of Devin’s most intense vocals of the album. “Dimensions” has a heavier, cyber-tinged drive, and the chugging guitar gives it a flavor similar to the more straightforward songs from Ocean Machine.

In their basic construction, these are simple, straightforward songs. However, the deeper you sink into the inviting verse-chorus template, the more awed you may become of the depth of detailed instrumentation and programming. Credit for this tactilely beautiful production goes not just to Townsend (who has typically produced all of his own stuff), but also to the Canadian producer GGGarth Richardson. It’s possible that rare collaboration may have helped Townsend rein in some of his farther flung ideas here, but at a minimum the album still feels like the product of a united vision.

Release date: November 4, 2022. Label: InsideOut Music.
“Heartbreaker” is built around a chewy twang and pleasantly off-kilter rhythm, while the song’s midsection is tumultuous and subdued at the same time. It’s one of the album’s more outwardly progressive songs, but stays in the same mood pocket. “Celestial Signals” has a chorus so empowering it feels almost impossible not to be lifted up, and it also has maybe the album’s most gratifying use of the Elektra Women’s Choir. The second half of “Heavy Burden” treads into a woozy funk with so many different vocals in counterpoint that it would feel overwhelming if it wasn’t handled with such a light touch. It feels like the “everything all at once” ethos of Infinity filtered through 25 years of experience, several Bobby McFerrin albums, and a gallon of herbal tea.

Lightwork feels like an incredibly weird, dense album, except for the fact that it is unimpeachably light and perfectly understandable. Does that say more about the listener than the artist? “Equinox,” for example, opens with some percussive programming and downtempo beats that could have wandered out of the electronic indie of the Postal Service, but then quickly turns down a modern synth-pop avenue like Chvrches. The main tremolo arpeggio that forms the song’s theme, though, is so rubbery smooth it feels like rolling your brain through a miniature car wash.

One of the most rewarding features of Lightwork is how Townsend layers several tracks of his own (and others’) vocals. In fact, despite the fact that the album features a large cast of guest musicians throughout, it’s not always obvious who is doing what and where. (I don’t yet have a physical copy to reference.) That uncertainty works in the album’s favor, though, because it presents the music as if it emanates from a community of disparate voices speaking in unison. In the final chorus of “Moonpeople,” for example, I think I can pick out Anneke van Giersbergen’s voice, but because I can’t be sure, it invites me in for even closer listening.

The album closer “Children of God” works as a perfect benediction for this generous, warm-hearted album. The drums stutter, shuffle, and roll, nudging things along in a languid march while Devin and all the other voices cycle again and again through a magical chorus that will swiftly build a loving home in your memory. Devin’s voice fades as he screams the album’s message (and maybe the only real message anywhere): “Free your mind / Please be kind.” Because his is a restless mind, he keeps at it, layering his vocals softly again over chiming and gently strummed acoustic tones, finally arriving at basically the same conclusion the Beatles landed on in Abbey Road: “And in the end, all that matters is how much we love.”

After these affirmations, the album closes with several minutes of a low, long calm. The song itself fades but we are left with the sound of lapping waves, the laughing cry of gulls, a foghorn; the same sounds, in fact, that the album opened with. It is circular, like the breath, like the tide, like the rising and falling of our days. Lightwork is a rock album. It’s a pop album. It’s a New Age album. It’s (barely) a metal album. It’s irrefutably a Devin Townsend album. But more than any of that, it’s a human album. It’s an album that just wants everyone to be okay.

Posted by Dan Obstkrieg

Happily committed to the foolish pursuit of words about sounds. Not actually a dinosaur.

  1. I think you got it right!
    Totally agreeing on this one with you.


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