04. Call of the Void
07. Celestial Signals
08. Heavy Burden
10. Children of God
The last few years have found Devin Townsend in a somewhat fractious mood. 2019's "Empath" was one of his most extravagant and unhinged releases to date: an epic prog metal monolith that threw an extraordinary number of disparate ideas together, with sublime but startling results. Last year's "The Puzzle" was even more berserk, with its waves of warped ambience and bursts of frantic noise [as an aside, you can hear me growling on "StarChasm", fun fact!].
Townsend has always been a songwriter intertwined with his own moods and creative urges, and so "Lightwork" instantly feels like a necessarily calm and measured response to the chaos of those aforementioned works. On some level, these songs serve as a reassuring hand on the listener's shoulder. On another, this is as close to a straight-ahead pop album as, one suspects, we will ever get from the Canadian.
Either way, "Lightwork" is a beautiful and uplifting record. You can still hear echoes of "Empath"'s theatricality here and there, most notably on "Lightworker", which twinkles with cracked-mirror Disney charm. Similarly, those craving some he(a)vy from Devy may have to wait until some unknown future date to have their faces ripped off, but "Heartbreaker" combines prime Townsend riffing with ornate, proggy detours, taking its time to unfold over seven, sumptuous minutes. Gnarliest of all, "Dimensions" is a stuttering, quasi-industrial throb-fest, with shades of WIRE, DEVO and the dark side of dubstep.
For the most part, "Lightwork" is a showcase for Townsend's winning way with a wonderful melody. "Moonpeople" is a gentle but insistent thing, with a chorus so sweet it will rot your teeth. As with everything here, it still belongs squarely in the reverb-sodden, widescreen world that has become his trademark, but all this elegant restraint feels fresh, as if Townsend has found a new, secret pathway leading from studio to synapse. "Equinox" is beatific art-pop at its finest: like some lost TEARS FOR FEARS outtake, assimilated into a slightly heavier and spikier realm. "Call of the Void" has an air of breezy, '80s radio-rock, with its giant chorus and unashamed simplicity; "Celestial Signals" is a gorgeous dream-pop confection. Even the sonically skewed "Heavy Burden" (shout-out to Anneke Van Giersbergen!) is essentially a delicate, melodic rush of warmth, while "Vacation" is a soothing, shimmering folk rock reverie, and one of the prettiest things Townsend has ever written. The closing "Children of God" goes big, but it builds slowly, coasting on an incisive, shuffling beat toward the mother of all climaxes. It's a pop song but stretched and molded to meet its creator's ambitions. It's worth hearing for the mesmerizing sound of Townsend's ghostly vocal harmonies alone.
Having trained us to expect the unexpected over the years, Devin Townsend may not regard "Lightwork" as one of his more radical works. But at a time when ugliness and confusion are in abundance, this lavish, lingering hug of a record is perhaps the most radical of all.