The distinctive cover of the latest project from the Pat Metheny Group finds a mosaic-like assortment of tiny images, which computer users instantly register as clip art or icons, spelling out the text in secret code. The design concept offers a telling indication of what's inside, sonically, while also enshrouding the contents. That's apt, too: this music has no easy categorical fix. Over the quasi-narrative sprawl of its tracks, the album is abidingly melodic ("Follow Me" is a pop tune sans lyrics) and romantic, but never at the expense of adventurousness, especially as heard on the mini-epic tracks conceived by Metheny and longtime partner Lyle Mays, whose subtle intelligence coats the entire album. "The Heat of the Day" weds middle-Eastern-waxing lines, in metrically challenged patterns enhanced by Glen Velez's percussion cameo, with anthemic melodic shards. "The Roots of Coincidence," with its nods to Nine Inch Nails, is the rockingest piece in the Group repertoire since "American Garage"-its rock syntax nicely subverted and mystified.
As usual, on this first project under a new deal with Warner Brothers, the Metheny Group aesthetic greatly differs from other Metheny projects-i.e. his recent encounters with Charlie Haden and Derek Bailey-in that the Group savors the details, espousing production values and conceptual overview more common to pop than the quick-fix studio philosophy of jazz. At the same time, elements of improvisation and swing feel undercurrent keep the jazz link active. Throughout, Metheny plays with the duality he has always represented: passion and polish. He brandishes a growing palette of guitar textures, including his 42-string Pikasso guitar, a mutant harp-tar, and the ear-tweaking fretless nylon string guitar through distortion that gives the title track a vaguely Carnatic 'n' western tinge.
Is it jazz? Yes and no, and maybe, depending on your perspective. What is true is that the Metheny Group is one of the most ambitious and by-now veteran bands to spring from the soil of eclecticism of their generation. They use jazz as a license to go out, without losing populist appeal. A mean feat, that.