The newest longplayer from Montreal staple Cedric Noel lands with a stunning sense of surety and self. Hang Time stands as a high water mark for a songwriter who's spent the past decade quietly expanding the borders of his music. Longtime fans will recognize the fluid elements of the album’s open-ended rock formations: reflective strumming, soaring choruses, searing guitar lines, subtle bass grooves; all occasionally dissolving into pools of pure ambience. New listeners will find surprises throughout: threads of folk pop, ambient and sound collage fasten the foundations of this expressive whole. However, what’s most striking on his eighth album is Noel’s newfound sense of voice, both literal and metaphorical.
Written primarily in 2017-18 during an intense period of self-reflection, this collection of songs finds Noel wrestling profoundly with his sense of identity, self and place. Born in Niger, adopted by Canadian and Mozambican/Belgian parents, he spent his youth moving around the globe with his adoptive, multi-racial family, eventually landing in Fredericton, Canada for university. While studying, Noel embedded himself in a predominantly white indie rock community that left him feeling, as a Black man, both seen and unseen in complicated ways; both welcome and not. This tension would follow Noel through a move to Montreal in 2016 wherein he found himself again moving within predominantly white music communities. This (dis)placement would encourage Noel to find respite in Ottawa, holed up temporarily in a family home, studying the pieces of himself and putting them to place in music.
Listening to Hang Time, one can feel the tensions of this process being held and released, as if being allowed to breathe for the first time: forms open and close, surfaces are seen through, feelings go supernova. The album’s material was captured faithfully at The Pines, a beloved downtown Montreal studio whose doors shuttered shortly after amidst the strain of the pandemic. Noel worked closely and patiently with friend and engineer Steve Newton, ensuring the songs had the time and space needed to come fully to fruition. Hang Time features subtle rhythm work from drummer Liam O’Neill (SUUNS) and guest spots from Brigitte Naggar (Common Holly) and Tim Crabtree (Paper Beat Scissors) among others.
The album opens in mid-air with ‘Comuu’, a song that implores a becoming-more while hovering triumphantly. Then follows a suite of songs (‘Headspace’, ‘Keep’, ‘Stilling’) that recall the heart-rending power of y2k-era Low, albeit with a more vigorous beat. On ‘Bass Song’, an intimate duet with musician Ella Williams (Squirrel Flower) that explores the depths of interpersonal constriction, Noel sings: “I don’t get to say the truth / When I want to / But I want to”, signalling that the singer is ready, finally, to shed expectations and stand in his truth(s). At the crux of the album sits ‘Born’, a deceptively pleasant-sounding song that explores the confounding emotionality of adoption before fading into a distended soundfield.
Throughout the back half of the album, Noel double’s down on this commitment to his genuine, proud, Black self. The most confrontational track, ‘Allies’ finds him refraining “Are you on my side?” as a trailing guitar solo interweaves a Malcolm X soundbite, eventually engulfing the composition. Glorious lead single ‘Nighttime (Skin)’ traces the artist’s sense of ancestral dissociation through to a triumphant moment of pride in self-acceptance. Throughout Hang Time, Noel finds a way to ask hard questions (both of the listener and himself) in ways that are compassionate, open and honest. The ebb and flow of tension and tenderness that moves within these tracks helps to grow the heart and redefine what Black music can be in 2021.