In an interview from 2017, I asked Bruce about a pivotal moment in his career: one that acted as a catalyst for creative output that still continues to this day. In his answer, Hornsby revealed what began driving him to recreate and reinvent:
…I had this epiphanic moment where I said to myself, ‘Okay, now I’m 40 years old, what am I going to do here? Am I going to rest on my laurels, sort of stay in the same place musically, instrumentally, compositionally, as most of my singer-songwriter friends who basically mined the same stylistic area that they started with in their artistic infancy – they basically mine that same stylistic area for the rest of their lives – or do I want to try and push it and try to move into a new area?”
Almost 25 years later, that desire to push the limits of what might be expected, the desire to explore and incorporate new sounds into his creative output, has enabled Hornsby to deliver Absolute Zero, a mile-marker on his constant stylistic journey.
Assuming the listener begins at track one, their ears are treated to the album’s mellow and ethereal title track, featuring Jack DeJohnette’s seemingly omnipresent drum pattern and lyrics that push the cynical notion of cryogenic preservation in hopes of a better world to come. It shouldn’t take long for a typical Hornsby fan to understand that they are in for a new and eye-opening experience. This certainly is confirmed with the following track, Fractals, which sounds like the product of a jam session between 20th century experimental composer, Oliver Messiaen, and Prince. The underlying groove is driven by Hornsby’s double-tracked vocal line, which ties together the sporadic, angular piano part. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
You might be tempted to think that this is a total departure from Hornsby’s previous musical creations, but that simply isn’t the case. Voyager One, which features a brilliant collaboration with yMusic, seems to recall the playful, lively feel of “The Great Divide” from Hornsby’s 1998 double-album, Spirit Trail. The highly active instrumental parts create a groove that must surely elicit movement from even the most amusical of human beings. Another such tune is Never in this House, a ballad that tugs on the heartstrings. Its melodic and harmonic structure may remind the listener of some of Hornsby’s Grammy-nominated instrumental compositions, such as “Song C,” “Song F,” or “Song H.” There is also a heavy dose of Appalachian folklore mixed in with the unusual sounds in Echolocation, paying homage to Hornsby’s affection toward bluegrass.
One of the primary features of this album, and the element that makes it so unique, are the collaborations. Justin Vernon and Sean Carey of Bon Iver make their presence known in the forlorn Cast-Off and in the appropriately subdued Meds with their signature ambient and modern accents. When blended with Hornsby’s harmonic palate, the result is a cool, rich soundscape. Brooklyn sextet yMusic brings an energetic musical flair to the overall sound, and even a touch of the avant-garde in The Blinding Light of Dreams. The highlight of the collaboration, however, is the album’s final track, Take You There (Misty). This emphatic declaration of the promise of love contains a middle section that most certainly takes the listener on a sonic journey through emotional depth, and features Hornsby’s most impressive vocal performance on the album – a strong conclusion to this bold new offering.
Ultimately, the best part about any new Bruce Hornsby record is what lies ahead: watching and listening to Bruce and the Noisemakers reimagine these songs and others on tour. That is because this album is not simply a new stylistic effort, like someone changing the direction they travel; rather, what we are witnessing is the process of Hornsby’s style becoming itself. It is the sum of all its parts and is constantly evolving, with the listener being the beneficiary. And just as “the human race has aimed toward space,” Bruce Hornsby, in an effort to not simply rest on his musical laurels, appears to have his sights set on the musical cosmos. Godspeed.