Mica Levi’s score for Jackie was rightly celebrated in 2016, joining her work on 2014’s Under The Skin in what is already proving to be a successful, idiosyncratic career in film composing. But it was unfortunately easier to overlook Remain Calm, Levi’s joint album with Under The Skin collaborator Oliver Coates, which arrived with understandably smaller, Natalie Portman-less fanfare at the tail end of November—too late to be properly considered for my Best Music ballot, but just in time for its glacial pleasures to slowly reveal themselves over the looming winter. As with the duo’s work on Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi creeper, the sound here is an alien one, weaving together Coates’ trance-indebted approach to cello playing (also heard on Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool) and Levi’s chopped-and-screwed manipulations for a genre-tripping collage of electronic and acoustic textures. Still, it’s a lot more approachable than that sounds. In fact, Remain Calm is one of 2016’s most immersive, most easily recommended experimental works.
If Remain Calm does come with any caveats, it’s that there’s not nearly enough of it. At less than half an hour running time, with most tracks running well under three minutes apiece, the album feels very much like the loose collection of improvisational sketches that it is. But Levi and Coates manage to cover an awful lot in that brief window, their many sounds recalling not only fellow neo-classical experimentalists like Julia Kent or Nico Mulhy, or evoking their most obvious avant-garde cellist forebear, Arthur Russell. There are also more modern elements of minimalist techno, UK garage, and drone in there, drawing on Coates’ love of club music (which he explored on last year’s Upstepping) and Levi’s itchy, dance-inflected work with Micachu And The Shapes.
The album’s longest and most engrossing track, “I’ll Keep Going,” manages to touch on all of these, building its melancholy atmospheres out of a ghostly vocal loop, some waterlogged piano, and lugubrious cello notes, then dicing it all up over a sparse, stuttering drum beat and the occasional tape-glitch effect. For such a moody song, “I’ll Keep Going” is also a surprisingly playful commingling of several, centuries-spanning musical forms, and its many stylistic quirks never come off as jarring or forced. The same can be said of all of Remain Calm, and I expect to return to this record plenty in the coming year—better late than never.