Review of 'Philtre' by Nitin Sawhney
When Nitin Sawhney released his debut album Spirit Dance in 1993 'Asian underground' was, well, underground. Much of Britain's music press was about to be overrun with a bout of 'retro-obsession'. 'Indie-pop' and 'cool Britannia' were dawning and Sawhney's boundary-defying tunes didn't really fit the NME's remit. Asian and 'cool' didn't really go together back then.
Fast forward to 2005. Talvin Singh has won the Mercury Music Prize, Rishi Rich has produced Britney Spears and Punjabi MC has had a top-ten hit. For some time even MTV began to look more Bollywood than Hollywood.
But long after Madonna has put away her bindi, Nitin Sawhney is back doing what he has always done. Philtre, Sawhney's seventh studio album, is not so much a departure from previous works, rather a re-establishment of past journeys rolled into a 58-minute crash course in Sawhney's music.
From early-electro beginnings, reminiscent of Massive Attack to the monsoon sounds of 'Koyal' and the all-out drum and bass assault of 'The Search,' this album flows, often seamlessly. Parts of Sawnhey's last studio album Human suffered from sounding stifled by genre tick-boxing, but in this instance the kaleidoscope of influences is bound together to form a genuinely satisfying album. This is not music for the unadventurous. Acoustic guitars race with programmed beats, tabla, turntable scratching and sitar.
On 'Noches En Vela' we hear flamenco hand claps and Spanish guitar slapped into place by synth-bass that sounds like it's been cut and pasted from a two step garage record and on 'Journey' Vikter Duplaix's single word vocals steer the music as if they were keyboard stabs.
Yet none of Philtre's 17 flavours sound cluttered or messy. Room is given to each instrument and time is given in which many cuts metamorphose from their initial form. Rarely do the arrangements sound unfriendly or alien. Alongside electronic structures lie warm poetry and nature noises. 'Mausam', meaning 'weather', is perhaps Sawnhey's most instantly sunny-sounding track to date, complete with advice in Hindi about the dangers of living a life void of adventure. 'Throw', a soul-infested parable about appreciation, induces smiles and head bobbing with ease while the album's delicate conclusion, 'Sanctuary', uses a flute to lull the listener into a state of calm.
Sawhney describes Philtre as a potion to remedy the pressures of modern life. In this sense he has avoided being overtly political in terms of lyrical content. Questions are posed - 'If Nixon never died and Martin Luther never died?' - but the emphasis is overwhelmingly on comforting the listener with messages of hope and appreciation for the opportunity for change.
Perhaps not all of Philtre will appeal to every listener - such is the breadth of exploration - but anyone with an open mind and open ears will find more than a few moments of nourishment. Philtre is uncompromising globe surfing. It's warm. Just on cue, this is music for the great British summertime.
Nitin Sawhney performs across Britain in May.