Every now and then, a record will come along, usually pretty much out of nowhere, that is so staggeringly pure in its beauty that you simply have to stop whatever else you happen to be doing at the time, and let it your brain and body be fully immersed in it. The last time I experienced this was upon encountering Perfume Genius’ devastating debut album Learning last year, and it has happened again, this time with Sleepingdog’s With Our Heads in the Clouds and Our Hearts in the Fields.
For those unfamiliar with the band, Sleepingdog consists of Belgian vocalist Chantal Acda, and Adam Wiltzie, the ambient heavyweight of Stars of the Lid fame, and With Our Heads in the Clouds represents their third long player as a duo. By the time you’ve made it through its opening song ‘Untitled Ballad of You and Me’, which is 8 and a bit minutes of wondrously spacious, chilly beauty, it should be clear that we’re not dealing with the mundanities of the day to day here, this is something on another plane entirely.
The gorgeousness of the album hinges on two core components. Firstly, you’ve got Acda’s heart-bursting voice, the intensity of which renders it a little difficult to actually concentrate on the words she’s singing, but, well, she could be singing about mopping the kitchen floor and it would be spell-binding. Then there’s the minimal musical backing, which consists mainly of tender, unhurried piano lines, and slightly unsettling organ drones. Occasionally the songs drift off into the ether for a few minutes, leaving us alone with Wiltzie’s ambient tendencies. This is employed most obviously midway through with ‘Kitten Plays the Harmony Rocket’, and the breathing space it provides is helpful to the record as a whole. It breaks up the emotional intensity a little, meaning you can recover a bit of composure by the time Acda returns on ‘He Loved to See The World Through His Camera’.
With Our Heads in the Clouds is more than just a beautiful record though. From a compositional standpoint, it’s a pretty fascinating one too. The way Wiltzie’s soundscapes and Acda’s voice work together is stunning, really, with the juxtaposition between the straight-up songcraft and the more avant garde elements producing some pretty interesting sections of music. One of the best examples of this comes from the opening couple of minutes of ‘From Where it Was’, where faintly ominous burbles of organ give way to ghostly whispering before an acoustic guitar appears to alter the mood of the song like sunlight bursting through clouds.
Ultimately, With Our Heads in the Clouds and Our Hearts in the Fields is a hugely ambitious project which sees its endeavour completely and utterly vindicated. It’s an album that reminds us that songs in their most traditional form and musical experimentation can co-exist peacefully and complement one other wonderfully. It has the twin powers to soothe as well as to break hearts and deserves to be remembered as one of the best works of 2011.