“Why so sad?/Don’t feel so bad/Get out of bed,” Steven Warwick tunelessly sings over gutted synths and a plodding drum machine on “Get It Together,” the bleak ode to something resembling self-care that introduces Nadir. This half-hearted plea offers quite the starting point: climbing, out of absolute necessity and with little fanfare, from a very low place. The UK-born, Berlin-based Warwick has performed with Luke Younger (aka Helm) in the duo Birds of Delay and, more recently, solo as Heatsick; his output under that moniker offered wry, danceable commentary on the niche social realities of the creative class. This mixtape-like offering is his fourth full-length with PAN, but his first under his own name, and marks a shift away from sardonic needling into something that’s more acutely—and personally—an artifact of total precarity. Balancing a fatigued observational poetics with ambient synth sketches, Nadir strings together a series of uncomfortably crisp images of a parched present.
As Heatsick, Warwick composed and performed using a beat-up Casio keyboard and a drum machine. While his productions weren’t exactly rich in sound, they tended to reach beyond those limited means, deploying skittering rhythms and juxtaposing textures to complex effect. Here, he gives up on this resourceful streak and embraces austerity. Sounds are bluntly placed, without much in the way of effects to dull their sharp corners: A harsh synth patch on “CTFO” maintains a single, flat volume throughout, running head-on into Warwick’s passive baritone. “Low Ceiling” matches a grating beat with the sound of helicopters overhead: “I feel scared/So I took a pill/And it calms me down,” he narrates. More ambient-minded offerings like “Racetrack Playa” and “Canyon Shadow” rumble aimlessly, streaked with staticky, trembling synthesizers. These still stretches are among the most evocative moments on the release, like the wordless reprieve of looking out a window while you’re in transit.
This threadbare aesthetic is propelled by Warwick’s writing. His accounts of panic attacks or souring relationships are indistinctly one-size-fits-most, if occasionally a little repugnant in their sheer passivity. But his descriptions of place are particularly lucid, as on “The Mezzanine,” in which he looks into a new urban shopping plaza: “There’s a zone of near serenity,” he says. “Sometimes you catch the gaze of a passing onlooker. You scan the purchases of an innocent bystander. The mezzanine is your dance floor. It’s your chessboard.”
A visual component to the album exists on Dutch artist Harm van den Dorpel’s delinear.info platform, comprising a nonlinear sequence of lyrics, cellphone videos, and photographs taken by Warwick between Berlin, Los Angeles, and New York, the three locations where Nadir was recorded. This colors in the transient spatial logic and general sense of dislocation that permeate these songs: an image of a desert sunset or a touching abstract photo of a beach at low tide will be layered with an iPhone picture taken in a shopping center or a German fast-food restaurant.
Though it can be beautiful in a stark, sad way, there is little comforting in Nadir’s millennial abjection. Many of the most effective recent attempts to process our troubled socio-political moment in sound have presented some form of escape, or at least catharsis. But these compositions contain neither, and don’t attempt to synthesize a broader narrative. They function instead—like the images Warwick has assembled to accompany them—as snapshot-documents of impermanent locations, of experiences that don’t quite add up, of the bizarre conditions of urban life in 2016. The uneven emotional and social landscapes Warwick conjures feel honest, and woefully relatable, in their inability to resolve.