Michael Benjamin Lerner was stuck. After three albums of fuzzy and fizzy power pop, the singer, songwriter, drummer and mastermind behind Telekinesis felt sapped of ideas, as if he’d taken his guitar-driven sound as far as it could go. Writer’s block can be a paralyzing frustration, riddled with second-guessing and false starts, but one of the best ways to push through it is to throw out what feels most comfortable and try something unexpected. So he got to work.
While each previous album was recorded quickly in other studios — with producers Chris Walla and Spoon‘s Jim Eno — Lerner designed and built his own home basement studio in Seattle, then began amassing a small army of analog synthesizers and drum machines, with which he’d grown infatuated while making 2013’s Dormarion. With that album’s highlight, “Ghosts And Creatures,” and the band’s concert cover of INXS’ “Don’t Change,” Telekinesis had already hinted at a new direction. But as he documents in a wonderfully detailed essay, Lerner delved deeper, first teaching himself how to make these electronics from disparate eras all talk to each other, and then figuring out how to utilize them to create actual songs. Essentially, he relearned how to make music with an entirely different toolset.
But all that time-consuming effort paid off. Telekinesis’ most fully developed record yet, the resulting Ad Infinitum represents a musical transformation. It blends the vintage with the sleekly modern while taking full advantage of his array of synths — each of which expresses a unique color, from icy beats and ping-ponging blips to silvery shimmers. It’s an elegant yet minimal sound that recalls the buzzy synth-pop of New Order (“Edgewood”), the experimental textures of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (“Falling [In Dreams]”) and the windswept beauty of “Plainsong”-era Cure and Angelo Badalamenti scores (“Ad Infinitum Pt. 1”).
In spite of the glossier production and dance-ready pulse, Telekinesis’ knack for memorable melodies still shines throughout Ad Infinitum. That’s certainly the case in “In A Future World,” a winsome retro-futurist anthem full of serrated rhythms and infectious hooks, and in the iridescent ballad “Sleep In,” which is enlivened by pitch-shifted samples and the robotic voiceover of an old Speak & Spell straight out of an ’80s sci-fi adventure. Similarly, Telekinesis’ lyrics remain as heartfelt as ever, with Lerner’s concise, evocative phrases frequently alluding to the blurring of dreams and lingering memories. “When my will starts to fade / I can no longer stay awake,” he croons in “Ad Infinitum Pt. 2.” In “Courtesy Phone” — a blistering, bass-heavy fist-pumper most akin to Telekinesis classics like “Car Crash” or “Coast Of Carolina” — Lerner describes regrets and a broken heart, and then the experience of trying to pick himself up afterward. “You forget feeling the magic / You forget feeling emphatic,” he sings. “I know you’ve got to give it some time.”
While this may seem like a dramatic stylistic overhaul, reinventions don’t happen overnight. Ad Infinitum is what happens when a songwriter recognizes a bout of artistic lethargy and uses it as an opportunity to challenge himself. It’s enticing to imagine what might come next.