By Matthew Murphy
Marking an invigorating return to form for the Thievery Corporation production team of Rob Garza and Eric Hilton, The Cosmic Game assembles a stellar cast of guest vocalists and collaborators to help the duo craft their most focused and captivating work to date.
And though the Thievery Corp.'s trademark confluence of chilled trip-hop, time-stretched dub, and casual musical globetrotting initially appears as tranquil as ever, beneath this false serenity churns an undercurrent of political anger, disillusionment and alienation that helps charge the album with enhanced fervor and vitality.
"Let's start by making it clear who is the enemy here," sings the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, opening the album with "Marching the Hate Machines (Into the Sun)" a title that everyone should be able to get behind, regardless of political persuasion. (Unless you're one of those pro-Hate Machine nutcases.) Though Coyne never does actually get around to informing us who the real enemy is, the track is nevertheless an appropriately melted stunner of tripped-out, progressive Dark Side of the Moon dub.
Babylon continues to come under fire on tracks like the sternum-rattling throb of "Warning Shots" or the driving roots reggae of "Wires and Watchtowers", on which the sultry Sista Pat asks, "How can the wicked smile while the world is burning?" as acres of humid, Black Ark horns surround her with their insistent reverberations. Perhaps most astonishing of all is Perry Farrell's echo-saturated performance on the turbulent "Revolution Solution". Delivering what is almost certainly his most appealing and least mannered (read: irritating) vocal on record, Farrell here shows remarkable restraint, repeating "I hope for comfort but I never felt too safe" with a disarmingly genuine sense of vulnerability.
Less successful is David Byrne's contribution on "Heart Is a Lonely Hunter". Although the track features the bug-eyed paranoid isolation Byrne is famous for (with lines like "Save bottles of water and flour and sugar/ Turn off the AC and hang up the bedsheets" nodding politely to the Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime"), the backing Latin rhythms and shimmer of keys never really congeal into anything memorable.
On this track, as well as during such brief instrumental numbers as "Holographic Universe", Thievery Corp. fall victim to their lazier, more antiseptic tendencies and their sound drifts dangerously close to the type of innocuous, Latin-whiffed wallpaper that Pottery Barn compiles to sell to your sister. Garza and Hilton thankfully recover quickly, however, and The Cosmic Game's final five tracks constitute a veritable tour-de-force of trance-inducing fusionist bliss, carrying the listener from Jamaica to Rio to India with magic carpet ease before the quiet, hookah-puffing "A Gentle Dissolve" ends the game with a sigh rather than a scream.