Rarely do compilation albums add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. Google is generally required to have more that just a cursory reflection on the history of great comps, with most coming from soundtracks or single-artist hits packages that assemble the best of perviously available material. Charity compilations also come to mind, where Red Hot is at the top of the class of that field with Dark Was The Night and No Alternative, a couple examples of primarily new material compiled and presented in a way that is artful. For every I’m Not There, a compilation of Bob Dylan covers for a film about Dylan, there are dozens of money-grab hits sets to sell in supermarket discount bins or pop marketing marvels like Now! That’s What I Call Music Volume: 38.
After Dark, and its new sequel, After Dark 2 come from somewhere different than these, taking up characteristics of two different compilation subcategories and existing closer to a standard album than most compilations approach. On one hand, it is a label sampler, a tool that used to be more common in the days of punk and even saw a market when indie labels like Sub Pop and Merge were still far enough removed from the public consciousness to get a real benefit from packaging then-emerging artists like M.Ward and The Clientele with known commodities like Superchunk and Buzzcocks. The label here is Italians Do It Better, but Johnny Jewel’s production work unifies the release beyond the single connection. Best known for his work in Chromatics, After Dark 2 sees his guiding hand spanning the album and plays pretty closely to a release from one of the projects involved, as they generally hold more similarities than differences.
Jewel’s statement accompanying the release reveals an attempt to represent the time spent making these songs, from 2007 until the present, from meeting his current partner and falling in love to the jet-setting lifestyle of performing and creating and partying around the world.
Still, as the title suggests, the music does not concern itself with things that happen in daylight. This is the soundtrack for romantic encounters, fashionable gatherings in lofts, productive periods of artistic inspiration and anything else that substitutes for sleeping. Using Glass Candy’s previously heard “Warm In The Winter” as a launching pad strips any emotional darkness from the collection, and the majority of the music is remarkably bright considering the setup and the general darkness associated with Jewel and his acts.
Synth-pop gems hold the collection together, with standouts including Desire’s “Tears From Heaven,” a cut unashamed of imperfections in its understated electronics and emotionally distant vocal delivery, the crackle of a turntable repeatedly lifting its head to the surface. Chromatics’ three contributions are all winners and expand on the vision of the group that finally saw success with Kill For Love, with “Cherry” wonderfully poised and controlled, always threatening to explode in M83 maximalism without taking that easy final step.
The songs don’t necessarily blend together, as each has nuances that assist in providing an identity, from the retro-boogie sing-along elements in Twisted Wires’ “Half Lives” to some of the more evocative synth work of the collection on Symmetry’s “Heart Of Darkness.” But mostly, the music works together more than it works to distinguish itself, always pushing movement and progression into the forefront in a sort of peaceful acceptance of chaos and uncertainty.
After Dark 2 is lifestyle-specific music that comes from people having previously unrealized levels of success, and that joy is in the music, ending with Glass Candy again on “Redheads Feel More Pain.” Surprisingly, the song isn’t the downer that is implied, and it also doesn’t allow the collection to seem like a victory lap. The idea that more is to come and maybe even better music is on the distant horizon permeates the track through the busy synths that for the first time sound restless. Having exponentially more people care about Johnny Jewel’s music hasn’t changed his little music universe from the listener’s standpoint, but if we are to suspect it might eventually, all indications from After Dark 2 are that it will be for the better.