Experimentation in music makes great musicians doubly honorable.
Bruce Hornsby, who has achieved a prolific career twisting sweetly iconic radio harmonies, leaps into more metaphysical and more emotional terrain with Absolute Zero.
Formed and produced in the soul of the unknown, the ruminative power of Absolute Zero sneaks up on the listener. Beginning with its introspective opener, the 10-track production manages to move along with a steady dignity as well as a quirkily rapt passage of time. There is not a moment in its existence when one does not experience its measured sweep and quiet deliberation. “Fractals” and “Cast-Off” resonate with a still and quiet conscience, and then Hornsby re-directs his energy on tracks such as “Voyager One,” with its ska and dance club ambiance framed in the jamband spirit of pure funkiness.
While Absolute Zero may encourage some impatient listeners to skip around, repeated whole listening will impart the calm, incandescent force of the artist’s intent. “Meds,” featuring Justin Vernon, Blake Mills, and Rob Moose, is the brightest testimony of Hornsby’s great passions, while “Never in This House,” featuring yMusic and The Staves, demonstrates the fine collaboration of sound that marks Hornsby’s career.
Indeed, Hornsby employs a notable batch of musicians to strengthen the album’s stature, including yMusic, The Staves, Blake Mills, Jack DeJohnette, S. Carey, The Orchestra of St. Hanks, and Hornsby’s longtime band The Noisemakers.
It’s hard to ignore Hornsby’s Christian Scientist upbringing and Grateful Dead affinity, as both seem to permeate and transcend the fierce sense of self that lends Absolute Zero its memorable spark of authenticity. “Echolocation” and “The Blinding Light of Dreams” offer up their own stylish gratifications, while “White Noise” and “Take You There (Misty)” close out Absolute Zero with tranquil simplicity and imperfect beauty. There is no genuine commercial track here, but instead an engaging collection of indie-flavored projections that softly tread on existential themes such as ego, love, and gratitude. There is little connection to the eminently sing-along-able recordings that have peppered Hornsby’s catalog since the release of the 1986 hit single “The Way It Is.” But there is the residue of his hallmark vocals and tight stylistic craftsmanship.
Indeed, “Take You There (Misty),” the song on this album that will perhaps sound the most familiar and be most associated with Hornsby’s sound, is a pure fan-pleaser, with all of the flow and continuity equal to any of his best work. Co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, “Take You There (Misty)” resonates in a voice from the ages.
Some of the greatest lasting impressions from Absolute Zero are the will of the 13-time Grammy nominee as well as his courage to depart from the character that landed him a string of signature ’80s hits. There is a humble beauty to Absolute Zero that has pushed the 64-year-old singer-songwriter and pianist to embrace all of the qualities of his musical inspiration: jazz, classical, gospel, psychedelic, and more.
It is hard to conceive that a musician who has already put forward approximately 20 albums and appeared on more than 100 others could dole out such a beautiful lesson in humility. But that’s what Hornsby has done, and our perspective of what he is as a man and as an artist has only deepened because of it.