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7 March 2024

Bruce Hornsby and yMusic’s Deep Sea Vents is an eerie, gorgeous experiment

On this collaboration, the Virginia maverick pushes into more uncharted waters. Goosebumps ensue.

By Kate Mossman

If I could be any musician, I would be Bruce Hornsby, who has made a career mastering new sounds in the pursuit of goosebumps, and locked himself away with the piano at 40 just to work on his left hand. Hornsby is famous for the 1986 number one “The Way It Is”, a civil rights song which, at five minutes, and with two jazz piano solos, was unlikely to be a hit. The son of a big Virginia clan, he didn’t touch the family Steinway till he was 17; then studied jazz in Miami and spent years in the LA songwriter wilderness. The slow start, the self-teaching and a stubborn, solitary approach to his work produced a unique musical sensibility: Hornsby can play or write in any style, but he always sounds like Bruce Hornsby. He is responsible for Elton John’s favourite bit of piano playing: on Bonnie Raitt’s 1992 song “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, his delicate accompaniment spills out like tears. 

Hornsby, now 69, pushes into modern classical, atonal areas these days, but because his songwriting structures are essentially rock and pop there is a founding warmth and a regular injection of gorgeousness in his music. There is not much piano playing on this album, which is not unusual for him. Instead, Deep Sea Vents is a collaboration with yMusic, the New York chamber ensemble who worked with Paul Simon on his farewell tour. They bring thickets of prickly woodwind, sliding bass and violins that bend like crying seagulls. Hornsby’s voice sounds increasingly rootsy like Levon Helm’s, and he plays an electric sitar. 

Hornsby often writes about individuals – a fisherman on the Gulf of Mexico; an acrobat performing a circus on the moon; a man going in for cryogenic freezing; a sad dude who enjoys being frisked at the airport. Some are losers; others, rather like Hornsby himself on this watery concept album, are musical Ahabs pursuing lonely but meaningful courses (“When I push myself I feel prouder / I can scream just a little louder” – “Wild Whaling Life”). While his 2019 record Absolute Zero was all about ice, Deep Sea Vents refers to thermal hot spots on the ocean bed where water spouts like plumes of smoke. On “The Baited Line” (“the music of the catch rose up like a choir of harps and horns,”) the chamber ensemble is celestially pretty. Hornsby favours an eerie kind of vocal pointillism, jumping between notes in a way that sounds random to the ear – then just round the corner, you’ll get a lighter-waving rock chorus, like the one in “The Wake of St Brendan”, which makes you wince in satisfaction like a cat being scratched round the ear. 

People understand what he is doing now: he was a guest on Radio 2’s Piano Room series with the BBC Concert Orchestra in January, along with Crowded House and Rod Stewart, and he’s recently collaborated with younger American artists, from Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. But music – the kind that sells – is conservative really, and generally not designed to challenge the ear. It is always inspiring to see someone push their career beyond the bounds of what is obvious or normal, and slowly pull the audience onboard.

[See also: How Bruce Hornsby survived a hit song]

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