A bleak reality was still setting in as we passed the one-year mark of the degradation of our social cocoons. MF Tomlinson’s first full-length project, Strange Time, landed amidst this bleak anniversary, one full trip around the sun after the world suddenly shut down.
Since then, waves of lockdowns have steamrolled us into digital realms where live streams and video conferences rule over ebullient masses. In just a matter of months, our way of navigating the world has drastically changed. But one thing has remained constant throughout all of it: our need to connect with others, no matter how physically isolated from one another we have been.
In true art-imitates-life fashion, Michael Tomlinson reached out to collaborators (“talented motherfuckers”–his words) all around the world to piece together a candid snapshot of the moment. They immortalized the places their (our) minds went during the daily walks, the innumerable night ins, and the occasional meltdowns. The buoyancy of MF Tomlinson’s first solo project, March 2020’s Last Days of Rome EP, has turned more meditative in Strange Time and new forms of storytelling emerged as Tomlinson turned his brain inside out to feed the creative beast.
The album opens with a sonic photomontage of the extraordinary, sadly phantasmagorical, events of the past year. Tomlinson quips, “the sky is red with flame, and now there is a plague” on a spellbinding backdrop of electric piano and light percussion. Real-life and fantasy become one as smooth sax and echoing ‘Strange Time’ coos lull us into a reverie, punctuated by the unshakable feeling we’ve been there before. Wherever ‘there’ may be, there’s a strong chance the feeling captured by “somehow the days dripped into weeks, slipped into seasons” resonates all too well for anyone listening.
With Strange Time, MF Tomlinson strives for timelessness in the timely. In contrast with a year of physical and social restraint, its ambitious compositions are inhabited with a deep sense of freedom. The psychedelic ‘Spring’ imagines nature retaking its rightful place in urbanized spaces, rejoicing that “the world belonged to itself again” as humans retreated to their respective dwellings for fear of harming their own species. Wind instruments brew up a mistral as the lions of Trafalgar Square come to life, and New York alligators venture out of the sewers.
Much of the sonics here build on 60s/70s folk and bubble over into tastefully high-flown chamber pop. ‘Them Apples’ is a tale of universes flowing into one another, as it ruminates on the temptation of doomscrolling and screen addiction with the help of guest vocalist Connie Chatwin. Packaged in late 60s folk-rock with ork-pop accents, the track addresses contemporary dilemmas with nuance, confronting connection and saturation and wondering how the first can exist without the former in the (dis)information age.
In fact, the track ties in a central theme of Strange Time: using music to mirror the conversations around us. Instruments are given singular voices and take turns taking the floor, at times mindful of each other, at times speaking out of turn and over each other, never paralyzed in gridlock. Instruments are engaged in conversation throughout ‘Spring’, each cozying up in any space it finds available without overstepping into otherwise occupied land. The autoharp and clarinet put down roots early on to spend the rest of the track flowing wherever the sun goes. The musical dialogue of ‘A Long Day’ sounds more methodically assembled but no less appealing. The recurring motifs feel strangely communal: there, adrift in the murky water, we hear glimpses of a sea shanty at arms’ reach.
‘Them Apples’ navigates through agitated seas, modulating its tempo as each leg of the song flows into the next on a feathery bed of cymbals. The boat is rocked from shore to shore, from capricious waters to calmer expanses and back. ‘Baby’s Been Gone’ is Ulysses’ return to Ithaca… only to find that Penelope has gone away to look for him. A sullen Tomlinson sits out on his front porch, looking out for signs of the lover coming home.
But Strange Time doesn’t sulk for long: ‘Thursday, 8pm’ celebrates coming together in appreciation for the NHS as a reminder of the paradoxically collective aspect of our isolating experiences. And off-the-cuff remarks like the memorable “I’m getting fat and old” don’t ring bitter or dispirited when set to the chime of a rootsy George Michael chord progression.
By the end of the sixth and final track, one thing is clear: Tomlinson is undeniably on the pulse of how last year has felt. When he describes being caught off guard by the weekly clap ritual while out on a run, we’re reminded it’s still entirely possible to be surprised during the most predictable and frankly exhausting routines. Although there’s probably little we’ll wish to carry over once the nightmare slips away into the early morning, Strange Time is a relic of the times that shouldn’t be left behind.