James Hinton is an excavator. For the past decade-plus he’s spent making music as Range, he’s scoured the unsupervised corners of YouTube, Instagram and Periscope in search of voices, most largely ignored by the algorithms of the platform and the general public. As of 2022, this strategy has become less unusual, especially as the rise of TikTok has sent just about every A&R rep with an impulse scrambling online to find the next viral talent. Hinton, however, takes a more nuanced approach, having developed a specific set of search parameters to maximize his chances of striking internet gold. He’s not looking for hit songs; he searches for raw gems, fragments of speech and emotionally resonant turns of phrase that he can turn into pieces of electronic pop perfection.
Hinton’s technique remained fairly consistent; his latest feature film, Mercuryrelies largely on the same methodologies as his breakthrough 2013 album, nonfictionand its follow-up in 2016, Potential. As such, the new album represents more of something like a refresh of its sound, rather than a full-fledged reinvention. Its 11 tracks allude to various strains of dance music (90s rave and classic grime are the most prominent) but largely eschew the actual dancefloor, instead basking in moments of vaporous melancholy and soulful reflection. Elements of soul, hip-hop and R&B also factor into the mix, but at its core, Hinton is a pop artist, and a meticulous one at that. (Given his attention to detail, it’s perhaps no surprise to learn that he studied theoretical physics at Brown University and admitted to being the kind of guy who does math problems for his own sake. having fun in his free time.)
His methods are remarkably effective. From the rave-lite R&B of the LP opener “Bicameral”—a song that makes the Bicep catalog sound like the work of hardened street toughs—to the scintillating gospel soar of “Cantor,” the album is bursting with color. vivid and stickiest melodies to sing along to. Mercury is noticeably warmer than its predecessors, and though it slips between compact bits of woozy British rap (“Urethane”), glorious soul (“Ricercar”) and tinkling garage laments (“Not for Me”), there is an obvious universality to Hinton’s work. Referring to something like “Spotify-core” wouldn’t normally be a compliment, but every song on Mercury seems perfectly suited to today’s streaming culture, in which listeners expect big feelings (and even bigger hooks) in tense pop packages. There’s no fat or excess in a track like ‘1995’, even though it somehow compresses the plaintive piano, MPC boom-bap, sample of My Bloody Valentine and soulful croon of the singer Toiya Etheridge in less than four minutes.