Niraj Chag :: The Lost Souls
"I have this moment and that is all I have... I am a lost soul... This album is dedicated to all the other lost souls." Niraj Chag
Upon first listen, the title of Niraj Chag's new CD seems misleading. The swirling strings and ethereal voices that rise out of the speakers sound poised, assured - almost angelic. Symmetrical and baroque, the cadence of uplifting notes threatens to lull the audience into contented ennui until the imposition of the first counterpoint with its low sawing cello tones adds a hint of doubt. It is a pattern that is repeated throughout the album. An intentionally jarring note interrupts a flawless melody. An off kilter beat betrays an unacknowledged sorrow. Everywhere is beauty. Everywhere is hesitation. Things are not as they appear.
Lost Souls indeed. Over thirteen layered tracks, Niraj Chag insinuates an undertone or architecture of resolve over torrents of doubt and uncertainty. Glimpses of beauty and truth are threatened, cajoled and washed away by fear and indecision. "Question those dreams. Ask which of them is real", the singer of Sapano Se Pucho - one of the most haunting tracks on Lost Souls - cries. With these lines, she expresses the theme that Chag explores as he escorts the characters described in this song cycle on their winding and often unsure way through the world.
The tug and pull between pure certainty, nagging doubt and spiritual precariousness expressed in the dynamics of Chag's often breathtaking musicality make Lost Souls one of the most engaging and diverse releases of the year to date. This is not simply a collection of great tracks with nothing to connect or unify them. Rather, Lost Souls is one of those rare albums where the lyrics and the music that support each song weave together to form an almost indefinably beautiful whole.
In an album like this where songs flow effortlessly in and out of one another, it seems counterintuitive to discuss individual tracks. Yet, each song on Lost Souls is like a short story with its own characters and narrative. Voices emerge to express longing and arrival, hope and despair, loss and gain. In A Thousand Books - one of the collection's most engaging cuts - Chag uses the poetry of the 17th century Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah to express the spiritual dissolution that seems so troubling to him.
"Again and again you journey to the temples and mosques, yet never a desire to unlock the doorway to your own heart."
While records about people suffering from spiritual crisis are nothing new, what is so stunning about Niraj Chag's explorations on Lost Souls is how beautifully the music on each track complements the concerns of the lyrics. On some tracks, the melodies are unsettled and reflect the troubled inner life of the singer, while other songs like the exquisitely layered Bavaaria are graced with a lovely conversation between an acoustic guitar, violins and a double bass. To listen carefully to songs like this allows one to hear the explorations undertaken by Ravi Shankar and Yeheudi Menuhin decades ago come to fruition in a way that makes complete musical sense. Each song sounds totally natural and unforced. Truly, this is world chamber music of the highest caliber.
The Sin Eater - an original composition based on a traditional Indian melody is the cut where Chag's ideas attain their highest point of expression. The song begins with flautist Sudhir Khadekar conjuring a haunting instrumental framework that devolves into what must certainly be the most beautiful journey through ambient percussion ever recorded. After the flute establishes the melody for the singer, the composition breaks down to allow minimalist drum and bass lines to reconfigure the rhythm. Then - without missing a beat - Chag seamlessly fractures the dominant percussion through some heady dubby reverb before raising the energy level up a chakra or two before bringing it home with a wash of treated tabla flourishes.
Niraj is a light-handed producer who thankfully never allows his love of texture to overwhelm his sense of melody. He resists flashy effects and obvious rhythms, and instead adheres to a beatific vision that never disappoints. Blessed with an assuredness and discipline that allows for looseness, Niraj seems to have no fear of juxtaposing syrupy Bollywood melodies with more academic western classical structures if they serve the song. In fact, Chag seems so untroubled by categorization that it would be no surprise if some of these tracks derailed under the weight of the various musical themes he introduces. Yet, no matter how many ideas Chag has floating around in a track, they never sound as if theyve been overwhelmed by superfluous layers. Every song no matter how complex and textured - survives with its soul intact.
Like Sergeant Pepper's, Kind of Blue or Dark Side of the Moon, Lost Souls is one of those rare, fully realized records that will send involuntary shivers running down your spine the first time you hear it. The music on Lost Souls renders terms like "world music," "ambient" and "fusion" superfluous and outdated. While it may be hyperbolic to suggest that this album is a signpost that marks the birth of a new music, one can nevertheless hear all of the places where old barriers and ideas dissolve. In the end - as Niraj shows us - there's only music with all of its endless possibilities, and nothing is off limits. Lost Souls is a benchmark album from an emerging giant. It simply must be heard.