When Craig Armstrong recorded his first solo album The Space Between Us in 1998, he was just a classically-trained composer who happened to hang out with big rock stars.
He was also Baz Luhrmann’s film score composer of choice, an association that would later garner Armstrong a Golden Globe Award for his work on Moulin Rouge and all the visibility that goes along with it.
As a result, Armstrong’s second solo album, As If to Nothing, is packed with such marquee-worthy guest musicians as Bono, Evan Dando and Mogwai. Where The Space Between Us sported only two collaborations and some “covers” of Massive Attack, As If to Nothing is rife with collaborators.
Yeah — the words “sell out” might just might come to mind.
The thing is, Armstrong is a damn fine composer. Unlike the John Williamses and Howard Shores of the scoring world,
Armstrong tends to draw from that murky period in classical music when 19th Century grandiose evolved into 20th Century darkness.
The stormy imagery on the album’s cover is more than just a visual cue — it’s the heart of the album’s content.
Like before on The Space Between Us, Armstrong manages to combine classical music’s lush orchestral power with subtle touches of electronic rhythms. Tracks such as “Amber” and “Finding Beauty” could have stood on their own without the beats, but they’re all the better for them.
This time, Armstrong uses this aesthetic as a springboard to more daring gestures.
The poignant “Waltz” is uncomfortably offset by Antye Greie-Fuchs arhythmic chanting. The heavy-handed rocker “Inhaler” sounds like Armstrong was jamming with Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore on a guitar.
Even when Armstrong brings in singers and delivers straight-forward pop songs, they feel remarkably full of emotion without resorting to predictable gestures.
Evan Dando’s whiskey-voiced performance on “Wake Up in New York” is at once mournful, gruff and tender, a fitting match for a song about the Big Apple. Dave McAlmont delivers a beautifully restrained reading of “Snow”, and even Bono gives a nuanced rendition of U2’s “Stay (So Faraway Close)”.
Steven Lindsay concludes the album wonderfully on “Let There Be Love”. He starts off sounding a bit like Bono but finds his own voice as the song progresses.
Like Anne Dudley before him, Armstrong works remarkably well as a rock musician and a classical composer. He speaks the disparate musical language of both idioms well, making As If to Nothing something indeed.