Jay Watson’s psych credentials run deep, thanks to his major roles in both Pond and the live incarnation of Tame Impala. He dives even further into immersive, otherworldly soundscapes on his sixth album as GUM, levelling up his multi-instrumental prowess for his most dynamic and ambitious solo outing yet.
The fuller scope of ‘Saturnia’ stems largely from lockdown, which for Watson saw a paused tour cycle and the arrival of his second child. He spent months at a time tinkering with arrangements, which is evident in many of the suite-like structures here. The gorgeous string parts conceived by New York violinist/composer Jesse Kotansky flow naturally alongside Watson’s whirring synth leads, dramatic drum fills and fuzzy guitar runs.
Opener ‘Race to the Air’ introduces that orchestral element well, shifting from Flaming Lips-esque fantasias to strutting synth-funk a la ‘Superstition’-era Stevie Wonder. It also shows off Watson’s drum chops, reminding us that he was Tame Impala’s touring drummer for the first five years of the band (before pivoting to synths and keyboards). Bolstered by effects-drenched vocal layering and an especially cosmic bridge, the track soars comfortably past the five-minute mark, Watson prioritising heady vibes and fruitful detours over studied concision.
Other tracks exploit GUM’s strengths just as well, with the parenting-inspired ‘Would It Pain You to See?’ evoking Classic IV’s enduring 1968 hit ‘Spooky’ before Kotansky’s strings help guide it into more open, less groove-heavy airspace. The mellow centrepiece ‘Fear of Joy’ matches cinematic strings with jazzy keys and other swelling embellishments in the vein of David Axelrod’s elaborate mood pieces. The title track is more trippy and full-bodied, while the brief but punchy ‘Muscle Memory’ finds Watson at his own playful, complete with a blistering guitar solo.
Most surprising are Watson’s turns toward fragile, finger-picked folk. He had hoped to make an entire record of that material – citing Nick Drake as a touchstone – and it’s fascinating to hear how those initial creative impulses have been woven into the wider fabric of ‘Saturnia’. ‘Music Is Bigger Than Hair’ and ‘In a Glasshouse (With No Light)’ begin in intimate singer-songwriter mode before a joyous tide of psych and prog rock influences kick in. Neither song stays in one place for long, with Watson pulling off impressive scene changes at a moment’s notice.
Lyrically, the album can come off as vague. While that certainly suits GUM’s dreamy directive, it should be the next area that Watson focuses on sharpening – especially if he continues to explore a folkier setting. That said, he acquits himself quite well on the closing ballad ‘It Lies a Lifetime’, which contrasts his tender singing and relatable lyrics with grand psych washes and gratifying dynamic shifts. A potential signal of GUM’s future, the song grows in scale while underscoring, rather than obscuring, its earnest themes of love and time.
Watson’s continued work as GUM will always be evaluated in tandem with his other two bands, and there are certainly plenty of parallels to observe there. But with each release, he builds out his sound world with more and more signature touches that feel unique to him alone.
- Release date: September 15
- Record label: Spinning Top