What all of those magazine monikers fail to encompass is Lidell's seamless blend of electronic artistry and heartfelt soul. Compared to Winehouse, Lidell's songs have a little more metaphor and a lot less trainwreck. And compared to Gnarls Barkley, the digital and electronic aspects are much more subtle and beneath the surface. On his newest album, Jim (Warp, 2008), Lidell's amazing soul-singer persona blooms and ripens, sounding at once like the Temptations circa 1965 and like a British singer-songwriter circa 2008.
Navigating tensions is what Lidell does best: On Jim, he bridges historical gaps between electronic music and soul, between ethnicities, and between his own musical interests. His more recent step into soul music is, for him, a natural one, yet another way for Lidell to express this multiplicitous musical personality.
Said Lidell over the phone from Vienna, "I've been making electronic music for many years, and I've seen joy come out of a bass drum, and I've seen joy created from a Japanese machine--joy comes in many, many shapes and sizes, and of course, it's unique for everyone, but in this case, on my record, joy came in the form of good-old-fashioned songwriting through the voice of an unlikely soul nostalgic pioneer of sound."
On Jim, Lidell is unmistakably "an unlikely soul nostalgic pioneer of sound"--"unlikely," because he's a blue-eyed British white guy, a fact that nearly every article and interview with Lidell points out.
But for Lidell, bringing up the fact that he's a white guy singing "black" music is just another instance of critics trying to place expectations on him, and of creating categories within music that only serve to stifle creativity.
"I was always drawn to black music as a kid, much more than any other kind of music," said Lidell. "It's just the thing that really turned me on. I mean, I think it's just as simple as that, really. You might be a black kid growing up in the Deep South, and you hear opera, and you think, 'Fuck, I want to sing opera.' It's like the whitest music on the planet, a lot of it written here in Vienna, and I don't see a black face anywhere around here, and yet, that can happen as well."
And the phrase "soul nostalgic pioneer of sound" encompasses all sides of Lidell's songwriting persona; some may think Jim is a completely different sound for Lidell, but it's an artistic evolution, a new phase--creating nostalgic sounds through pioneering.
"I think people go through periods, like a painter going through a blue or a cubist period," said Lidell. "I kind of have a hard time containing all my periods--push-pull, if you will, in terms of life in general, let alone music. It takes a certain kind of volatile mentality to be a chameleon. Perhaps it's not really that healthy to cultivate that in the mind, but it's hard to stop being like that if that is your disposition."
On Jim, "Figured Me Out" shows Lidell cultivating a push-pull between genres with brilliant results: The song sounds simultaneously like new wave, disco, '80s R&B and pop, and '60s soul--almost like Thriller-era Michael Jackson with the Jackson 5 as a backing band. And then on "Hurricane," things get retro pop, but listen closely, and you'll hear that part of what makes the song pulse are these moments of electronic chaos that make the steady organ and guitar beat seem even tighter. In fact, listen closely to an even more throwback-sounding song like "Another Day," "Little Bit of Feel Good" or "Green Light," and you can hear that Lidell's artistic touches give the song its distinct texture.
"A lot of people accuse me of being straight-up retro, and I don't really think that's possible," said Lidell. "I'm using digital technology, for one thing--just that fact alone is like trying to take a picture with a digital camera to look like an analog picture from back in the day. You can kind of do it, but it takes a lot of post-production. And the whole aesthetic I was trying to go for on this record was not a good deal of post-production. Taking a digital snapshot and leaving it, as it is, immediately pushes it into the future."
The use of electronics and digital technology is, said Lidell, "hiding behind the surface of almost everything." This is what makes Jim sound both of a past era and the current era: the honest electronic rendering of retro-sounding songs recorded digitally in the here and now. The subtlety of it makes the acoustic instruments shimmer, and makes the songs plump and vivid.
Explained Lidell, "As a singer, (soul) is like one of the most decadent and fun genres to get your mouth around. The music really encourages you to dig deep, to find, to go beyond the surface of your voice, to really try to get behind the words in a particular way."
And the digging-deep, going-beyond-the-surface thing extends to more than just Lidell's voice on Jim. It's there in the songwriting and the musical production: It's what makes retro sound fresh.