Provided your basic needs are met, everyday life comes loaded with experiences that give us simple, direct pleasure—the sensation of a fresh morning breeze against your skin, the taste of a fresh-picked strawberry, the give of a comfortable pillow. With his project Tycho, electronic producer Scott Hansen has built his music career on building sounds that circumvent the part of your brain that wants to think about the sensory input it’s receiving. For better or worse, Tycho does not make cerebral music, its wash of dreamy synth instrumentals as easy on the ears as a sunrise would be on eyes that are still bleary from sleep. (The comparison is not accidental: Hansen, a longtime graphic designer, has created images of abstract, sun-like orbs for most of Tycho’s album covers.)
Dive, the 2011 sophomore full-length that forever tied Tycho to the chillwave movement, exemplified Hansen’s unobtrusive approach. To his credit, Hansen has bucked against expectations ever since, taking a decisive (if not quite whiplash-inducing) turn into electro-organic, acoustic guitar-based arrangements and re-fashioning Tycho as more of a band on the follow-up to Dive, 2014’s Awake. Likewise, the next album, 2016’s Epoch delved into motorik-type grooves that gave the music a strong rhythmic pulse we hadn’t heard from Tycho before. And with the new album Weather, Hansen takes what on paper should look like the most revolutionary step of all: prominently featuring lead vocals courtesy of Saint Sinner, neé Hannah Cottrell, a rising futurist R&B singer from San Francisco.
Cottrell certainly does give the music a dramatic uplift. Not only does she bring a much-needed spark of longing to the proceedings, she also adds an endearing touch of the mundane, at one point (fondly) addressing a lover who’s “been asking all about my diet” on “Pink & Blue.” While it’s facile to suggest that Tycho’s music improves simply from the addition of vocals—not to mention an insult to all the labor Hansen puts into sculpting sounds—one can’t deny Hanson’s tendency towards crafting what, for all intents and purposes, amounts to elegant background music. So it’s only natural that Hansen’s style fits with a presence like Cottrell, who sounds perfectly at ease occupying the foreground.
Cottrell possesses a sweet, silken voice that she maneuvers effortlessly into its upper register. Especially evident on Weather, Cottrell is able to sing from the back of her throat, wrapping her words in a thin, reedy film that makes it sound like she’s whispering even when she turns the dial up to full volume. Hansen and longtime mixing engineer Count seize on the opportunity, highlighting the whispery element, which—thanks to their ears being so attuned to textural details—takes up the same space in the mix as a harmony background part would.
Meanwhile, Hansen and returning co-producer/bassist Zac Brown arguably come up with their most varied collection of backing tracks to date while also managing to craft the most coherent complete listen of any album in Tycho’s discography. Hansen has tended towards a uniformity of tempo and feel that can become an impediment over the course of a full-length record, but on Weather he comes the closest to mirroring the mixed emotions of real life—sometimes even on the same song. On “Pink & Blue,” a shaker beat that sounds like someone jiggling car keys keeps time over a beat made from various electronic percussion fragments. The beat conveys so much pep in its step you could almost picture a high-energy dance video to go with it—that is, until synths and a more organic drum beat take over to transport the song away from its sense of celebration, shifting gears several times into areas of ambiguous, if still active, solemnity and anticipation.
Then again, this is Hansen we’re talking about here. And by this point in his discography, it’s understood that he’s not the type of artist who’s going to place demands on his audience or even rock the boat at all. So it’s no surprise that the appearance of vocals slots right into the overarching progression of Tycho’s work. Despite the variety, Hansen is still drawn to making hazy music that inherently lends itself to melancholy. As with all previous Tycho records, the synths here induce an almost frightening feeling of drifting towards the edge of memory, where one’s recollections dissolve into abstraction and hang at the precipice of being lost forever.
For the most part, Cottrell reliably prevents the listener from getting engulfed in the aural haze that has become Hansen’s trademark. That said, with her distinct vocal character, it seems like she could invest her singing with more spiked edges if she chose to—or if the music called for it. When she sings “I like to keep it a little bit dangerous” over a plucking, minimally-adorned guitar hook on “Skate,” there’s no threat of any actual heat entering the picture, and one has to wonder what kind of danger she’s picturing from inside a song that feels all too safely contained. (As a comparison, think of the contained power singers like Martina Topley-Bird and Sia generate in their respective features with Massive Attack and Zero 7.)
When Cottrell sings “Don’t complicate it” later in the same song, she inadvertently draws attention to Hansen’s central challenge: how to make sedating music without losing people’s attention or, worse, making them sleepy. Strangely, for an artist so keen on not ruffling feathers, Tycho often leaves you wanting to have your feathers ruffled after all.