The dominion of indie seems overrun by hordes of hard workers who relish in the self-determined deadlines and the morphable dimensions of the home studio. These provisions mount a sort of insoluble problem for musicians eager to issue their creations the moment the tape reel suspends or content with expanding upon their maximalist palettes of sound. For Johnny Jewel, the analog-minded paragon behind Portland’s discotheque-rockers Chromatics, Italo-punk outfit Glass Candy, amongst a handful of names on the Italians Do It Better roster (a label he conveniently founded and currently operates), composing and arranging music transcends the esoteric persona we’ve perhaps unfairly assigned to independent producers. It’s not only an ethos that heartily shows itself in his numberless endeavors but an amalgamation of overcast attitudes and dancefloor beats that render his discography one of the most consistently engaging across the underground spectrum.
In recent years, Jewel’s medium as an overbooked composer has shifted to scoring films that reconcile his danceable, gloomy approach to pop music—from Ryan Gosling’s Lost River to the Belgian drama Home, one is left to wonder how Jewel’s rife sentimentalism translates into his solo work. Last year’s Windswept compiled several afterthoughts from his decade-long tenure, proving that even prolific pragmatists such as Jewel have untouched material to spare. Nearly eight months later, Jewel returns with Digital Rain, a full-length concept album fawning upon the allure and presence of precipitation that coated his hometowns. Vaporous synthesizers and drum machines at his beck and call albeit with incidental restrain, Jewel’s instrumentals sow ambient movements with the textural stamina of his vintage keyboard assortment.
Throughout his career, Jewel’s philosophies as a songwriter rarely reached beyond the anachronistic beauty of all things retroactive and honed heavily on treated modern ears to his dancefloor-direct productions—Digital Rain delves in fanciful melodies alone, bridging his trademarked instrumentation in Chromatics with the reserved moods of his soundtrack work. Twinkling and veiled by misty keyboard lines, the titular opener recalls the restless feeling of being trapped indoors during a rainy day. Likewise, the Tim Hecker-esque drones of “The City of Roses” chalk out a lavish outline of the Portland skyline puncturing the migratory sea of clouds hovering above. Any which way, these sonically captivating illustrations uncover Jewel’s attempt at framing his songs with the isolationist headset he’s customarily sworn off. This time, the idol worship is marginal, if not scarcely visible past Jewel’s meditative intentions.
At first glance, the congested tracklist of Digital Rain seemingly insinuates Jewel is merely caching together half-assed sketches floating around in his disk space rather than confident bangers. The truth of the matter is that Digital Rain’s crowning stroke is its cyclical existence; from start to finish, Jewel’s scattered flow of songs mold into distinctive movements—in fact, it’s less of a pushover to listen to Digital Rain without scouring its tracklist. Without these barriers in name only, the splendid progression from “Mirror Image” to “La Ville de Neige” courses into one succinct arrangement rather than splintered fragments.
Ultimately, Jewel’s methodology in Digital Rain scans as a terrific antithesis to career standouts like Chromatics’ Kill for Love and Glass Candy’s B/E/A/T/B/O/X—without the cadenced stomp of the disco guiding his every move, his synthesizer interpretations are far from lifeless or uninspired. Although it will undoubtedly be swept up in the deluge of his profuse output, Digital Rain is a reflective triumph for Jewel and an afterthought for his listeners that may as well suggest a much-needed period of calm before the imminent revival of Chromatics and Glass Candy.