It was a craft well-honed by the time of 2018’s Like A Baby, a tight collection of reflections on everything from selfhood, service user agreements and the existential dread of retail, with Nathan the brooding crooner pouring their voice over each track like bittersweet syrup.
Right off the bat, Free Time announces itself as a different musical proposition. “Kno Me” rolls off a snare into a swaggering guitar riff and a strutting vocal, staring down challengers: “You’ve written off my story in your head already / You don’t know me”. It’s followed by “Just Say Play”, with BADBADNOTGOOD’s Leland Whitty on flute duty for some sun-dappled self-affirmation about throwing away the book and making up the rules as we go along.
Free Time is the culmination of a journey to coming out as non-binary, and the inescapable impression is of an artist who’s found a new groove and returned to the studio with a renewed sense of fun. Look no further than “Gracie III”, the third entry in a sequence of songs that began life as a lo-fi astral oddity on 2012’s Vol. I, and became a libidinous mellow blues cut on Toon Time Raw! four years later. Here it blossoms into a breezy tune about microwaving curry while waiting for you sweetheart to get home, daydreaming a sexy sax solo with a goofy grin across your face.
In this sense, Free Time is fundamentally about identity and its deliverance from the strictures of binary relations – work and play, production and consumption, boy and girl. To chirping tropical synths and an elastic bass on “Shaking Ass”, Nathan bemoans the scant satisfaction to be found in the meagre horizons of late capitalism, instead finding refuge in small acts of liberation: “Oh, those technocrats / Can’t keep me sated / Nothing gets me like a good / Shake of the ass”. Their sardonic excoriation of hyper-extractive consumerism sparkles on “Myopitopia”, a lush, languid slice of synth funk that has Nathan surveying discarded white goods and domestic trash bathed in the orange light of sunrise, meditating on transitory polypropylene pleasures and humanity’s slow, slippery descent into entropy. There’s that sense of fun we were talking about.
In some ways Free Time is an album wrestling with its own optimism. It expertly captures – with few missteps – that sense of the friction between emancipatory self-assurance and capitalism’s increasingly prevalent and powerful tendencies towards isolation, segmentation, and categorisation. Isn’t the nature of the world, asks Nathan on the closing track, enough to make you cry? And if that is so, why spend precious countless hours denying yourself for a society that sees you only as an object to mould and mine for value? Why waste time calling flowers squares