Review: Dhani Harrison, 'In///Parallel'
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
Pop culture sells the idea that the human aptitude for art is instant, a birthright. Those who toil in this realm know better: It's a journey. Making art involves understanding the nature of inspiration, managing influences, building skills, locating kernels of truth within oceans of static. It takes time.
Which perhaps explains why Dhani Harrison, age 39, is just now releasing his first solo album, the mesmerizing In///Parallel.
Of course, the son of the late George Harrison has been involved in music for a long time. His band thenewno2 began making music in 2006, and within a few years was playing Coachella and other festivals. He's done soundtracks for film and TV (Beautiful Creatures, Good Girls Revolt). He's also worked as co-producer (with Jeff Lynne) of his father's Grammy-winning posthumous release Brainwashed, and played guitar in highbrow company (memorably, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" during a 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to his father, featuring Prince, Tom Petty and Steve Winwood).
What Dhani Harrison hasn't done, until now, is share his own musical vision, the sound he hears in his soul. His path has been about acquiring skills, learning musical languages – and, not incidentally, wrestling with the long shadow of a much-beloved and iconic parent.
Harrison could have done the George tribute circuit forever. Instead, he went searching for what he alone might contribute to the ongoing conversation of rock; In///Parallel announces the arrival of an unexpectedly intense artist, whose mission is to tell stories not just with words but cannily developed sonic realms that suggest Can, Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel.
It takes seconds to sense this. The opener "Never Know" begins with the recollection of a dream, scrambled and out of linear sequence. "When the breath was taken from me I was screaming," Harrison sings in a faraway, disoriented way, his words made eloquent by the sitar-kissed drone that surrounds him. "In the dream their queen had stolen all my reason ... We were subject to the tussles of our feelings. Good and bad, day or night, rain or snow, all we knew was high and low."
It's a song about destiny and choice, and like much of the album, it connects meditation-room insights to vast, expansive, post-rock soundscapes. Harrison is a steady-handed songwriter, adept at short and repeatable pop phrases. But his key distinguishing trait is smoldering atmosphere: These songs move at stately, processional tempos but never feel slow – stuff is always swirling in the background. They're audio landscapes, vivid in an Out Of Africa kind of scenic way, even when they depend on skittering electronic drums and gorgeously sustained guitars that are too ambient to be described as "leads."
"Never Know" features exotic string orchestrations and beautifully arrayed vocals – there are spirited conversational volleys between Harrison and guest vocalist Mereki, and a choral refrain that sounds just a bit like ELO in its heyday. Other tracks utilize different devices: The strings on "The Light Under The Door" take dervish veers into tense dissonance, while "Downtown Tigers" showcases a lovely, unexpectedly moving multi-tracked Harrison vocal.
There's tons to say about the ways Harrison managed and extended the influence of his father. The very occasional (and almost covert) references to The Beatles – see the harmony clusters woven into "Ulfur Resurrection" and the heart-heavy wordless sighs of "Admiral of Upside Down" – resonate as respectful, musically appropriate nods to an inescapable legacy. They're likely part of Dhani Harrison's necessary process of discovering his "voice" as an artist, a process that will, with any luck, lead to further explorations along the lines of the thoroughly absorbing music he's offering here.
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