When Ross Birchard released his debut LP as Hudson Mohawke in 2009, life must have seemed relatively simple. Over the preceding couple of years, his ascent had been textbook: start an underground label (the genre-defying LuckyMe) with like-minded heads, make some prodigious DJing appearances, put out a handful of hard-to-find EPs, and wait for Warp Records to come calling – which it duly did, releasing Birchard’s Butter in October of that year. But what Butter – an album of rag-bag attention-deficit maximalism that was sporadically jaw-dropping but too rich for one sitting – couldn’t possibly have foreshadowed was how a 23-year-old Glaswegian bedroom DJ would shortly become the go-to producer for Kanye West and also, as one half of the short-lived TNGHT, momentarily end up in charge of one of the most hyped acts on the planet. In short, Birchard, purveyor of eccentric electronica indebted to the music of Street Fighter II, went A-list.
But while overwhelming demand for Birchard is the primary reason for Lantern being six years in the making and at least three years late, it’s also undoubtedly what’s shaped the album’s central aesthetic. Where Butter was a bubbling rookie jumble, constantly coming up on its own madcap sugar high, Lantern is a less dense, calmer affair clearly borne of broader collaborative experience: five guest vocalists, placed strategically throughout the record, temper Birchard’s natural tendency towards instrumental histrionics, and even his solo efforts are enjoyably less CAPSLOCK this time around.
But the vocal pieces are where Lantern really shines, revealing Birchard’s unexpectedly tenacious ear for pure pop: Warriors is a full-frontal power ballad featuring a honking gospel chorus that declares “fuck what they say, we are the warriors!” with a brilliantly bombastic #hatersgonhate flurry of righteous indignation. Elsewhere, Indian Steps is tonally the inverse of Warriors, featuring Antony Hegarty’s quivering voice sleepily seducing a lover while lush horns parp underneath. Twinned with Birchard’s decidedly screwy approach to producing such unashamedly straight songs – Kanye-fied pitched-up vocals, skeletal bleeps all over – the results are gloriously odd, surprisingly addictive and far grander and more subtly expressive than anything Birchard has produced hitherto.
But that’s not to say that Lantern is necessarily a more mature album than Butter: Birchard still revels in silliness here, delivering Big Dumb Drops just for the lolz on System and headache-inducing earworms reminiscent of the PC Music brigade on Portrait of Luci. For final track Brand New World, too, he can’t resist aping the thin triumphalism of myriad 90s computer-game ending screens, making for a conclusion that emphasises how expert Birchard is at plastic pastiche, and somewhat undermining the more three-dimensional material that precedes it.
The most unexpected facet of Lantern, though, is Birchard’s newfound emotional breadth. The album remains unmistakably HudMo, overflowing with neon blasts of static and lemony keyboard licks, but the most skull-shredding of these have been softened by collaboration, as if Birchard, newly in demand as a Producer Of Note, feels his work now deserves a seriousness to accompany the punky pranksterism. In most parallel universes, where Kanye never came calling, Hudson Mohawke’s second album would be of interest only to Boomkat junkies and Warp catalogue collectionists; in this one, however, Lantern is a major release – something of which it’s all too aware.