I’ve never really seen the point of live albums. They don’t actually serve to reignite the visceral thrill of having seen an act, nor provide the vicarious thrill to those who’ve never had the pleasure. Often deployed as contractual filler, on occasion they throw up an interesting reinterpretation or two, but rarely serve as the go-to titles for any artists. Thankfully, this isn’t really a live album, more a collection of expertly-selected and delicately-woven field recordings, covering two years of performances by one of my absolute favourite artists, Nils Frahm. His music played during the signing of the register when I got married this summer and I continue to point everyone I can in his direction. I’ve yet to have the pleasure of seeing him live, and ‘Spaces’ doesn’t really do much to address that. In many ways, however, it is the first album of his to really capture the breadth of his quite remarkable talent. Where previously he has worked to various limitations – ‘Wintermusik’ was originally a festive gift for family, ‘Felt’ was recorded within a piano deliberately muffled to be playable in the small hours and ‘Screws’ was confined by a broken digit – this feels like an album with no boundaries. When I crafted my 105 words for Clash on this wonderful record, I describe it as the “sound of an artist unleashed”, and I think I was onto something. This is not a career overview, nor is it simply a collection of new music. It is a mutation, a collage, of the sounds that pour out of Frahm. His lyrical playing and knack for finding the precious spaces between the notes are why I treasure records like this one so much.
‘Spaces’ is comprised of eleven tracks and seventy six minutes chosen from over thirty concerts Frahm recorded in a two year period. Some things here will be instantly recognisable to those already immersed in his work – a beautifully expanded ‘Said And Done’ from ‘The Bells’, a suitably demure ‘Over There, It’s Raining’ from the same record and a bare take on ‘Familiar’ from ‘Felt’ – while others offer strange subversions and melding together of previously released tracks. ‘For-Peter-Toilet Brushes-More’ is a staggering, near-seventeen-minute long collision of material from the recently reissued ‘Juno’ single, whereby he recorded two pieces for Peter Broderick after the fellow Erased Tapes artist loved the sound of a synthesiser Frahm had in the studio, and utterly essential afore-mentioned album, ‘Felt’. If you want to get a sense of the many directions this man’s truly special music can go in, then that elongated piece may be the best place to start. The synth stabs gradually recede into uplifting washes of sound before the whole thing branches off and Frahm plays the inside of his piano with, er, toilet brushes. Frantic piano accompanies and the track starts swirling towards a brash crescendo. It’s one for the headphones and loud on the speakers.
The new material is fairly remarkable also, with the eight minutes of ‘Says’ having drawn particular praise from all over. It’s a sublime synthesiser piece which gently bubbles through five minutes of tranquil layers before exploding into a conflagration of all of the instruments Frahm uses on stage, producing the aural equivalent of shooting stars in the closing ninety seconds. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of music released this year and reason enough to get hold of this album. ‘Hammers’ wheels along at a frenetic pace, sounding not unlike early Noughties Radiohead, while ‘Improvisation For Coughs And A Cell Phone’ pretty much does what it says, capturing and reacting to the presence of others in the room.
What drew me to this man’s music in the first place was his indefatigable desire to play with sound, see where it can go and ride out the results until they all make sense. The control of the tracks he has previously released always seemed to demonstrate his ability to be deft and to be precise. ‘Spaces’ captures all of that exploring, that enthusiasm and that passion as it was being poured into his work. Watch the clip above of a take on ‘Toilet Brushes-More’ to see the sheer delight on Frahm’s face as the room responds to his efforts and you get a sense of what’s happening here. ‘Spaces’ may not give me the sense of having seen him live but it really does offer a different, or at least enhanced, take on what it is this most remarkable of artists can do. If my raving over ‘Screws’ last year didn’t prompt you into action then, for your sake, I hope I’m up to the task of enthusing you this time.
In the sleeve notes, Frahm says: “I guess ‘Spaces’ works best if you put it on a record player, with your phone and computer turned off, imagining you were in one room with me, where I play for you.” It certainly warrants such focus, revealing its breathtaking layers to anyone willing to look. The vinyl edition will make it out some time in the new year, once a decent test pressing has finally been managed, and it will be a very special thing indeed. However, on this occasion, I would suggest you don’t want to wait. Seek this special record out now and use it as a lift during festive lulls, take it with you on crisp New Year’s walks and embrace it as the artists suggests. It’s easy to be evangelical about an artist when they’re this good.