Andy Bothwell a/k/a Astronautalis wouldn’t be the first rapper who’s musical ambitions eventually outgrew the confines of so-called “traditional” hip-hop. Despite having earned his stripes as a freestyle/artful battle rapper with several Scribble Jam appearances under his belt, his 2006 debut Mighty Ocean and Nine Dark Theaters showed an artist that defied easy categorization, as the disc’s nuanced, moody productions colored the different lyrical approaches, which veered from subdued singer-songwriter material to hard edged bangers. Those themes continued on “Pomegranate” in 2008, and progress further on the new album This Is Our Science, a complex effort that requires patience to absorb, but yields solid, sometimes stunning, results.
Right from the opening track “The River, The Woods,” it is obvious that This Is Our Science asks a lot from its listeners; his rapid, lyrically dense flow and abstract wordplay aren’t built for background listening. Astronautalis’ voice—which sounds like a husky grumble when singing, a gruffer Eminem when rapping—cuts through the opening notes with a sense of urgency; “I’ll show you what it’s like to be alive” he states at the end of his verse, offering an indication of the album’s introspective themes.
The trick is finding the meeting place between Astronautalis’ lofty ambitions and the listener’s expectations. When he is able to do it, as on the atmospheric, industrial-electro grind of “Midday Moon,” the results are impressive; Bothwell spits a vividly detailed meditation on death and faith in his verse, then moves effortlessly to singing the chorus, all while the beat builds from a simple bass line into a symphony of crawling synths and drums. “Thomas Jefferson,” with it’s bar room piano and dirty guitar-and-organ combo, makes the most of Astronautalis’ gravely vocals (reminiscent of Everlast) to create a natural-sounding mix of blues rock and hip hop, which is no easy feat.
But the artist’s admirable aspirations to transcend genres also is certainly not without risk. The acoustic guitar and piano of “Measure the Globe,” a lukewarm attempt at Coldplay-like mid-tempo pop rock, falls flat, despite a strong vocal performance. Similarly, tracks on the tail-end of the album, such as “Lift the Curse,” get caught underneath their heavy handed delivery. Astronautlis’s lyrics aren’t necessarily humorless, but there is so much information, emotion and detail packed into songs that make This Is Our Science a difficult album to absorb on just a few listens; it’s a testament to meticulous song craft, but not necessarily the most listenable of projects.
If you have patience and an open mind, This Is Our Science rewards listeners who fit that description with an strong next chapter in the continued evolution of Astronautalis. It’s a challenging, complex and sometimes brilliant album from an extremely talented artist who doesn’t place limits on himself, though at times you may wish he had thrown a few small ones in there.