there's a millennial anxiety simmering underneath World Party's new "Egyptology," a certain eagerness for the health of the human condition that was present on WP's first three albums, but only became a major theme on 1993's "Bang!" It's a theme that points to the puzzle of Welshman Karl Wallinger. A lone musician who refers to himself as World Party, Wallinger writes songs that are simultaneously about personal transcendence and global salvation. On every one of his albums the world is referred to as a singularity, as a character. And on this album, he is digging up his own past, sifting through the ashes of his musical ancestors.
Four years have passed between "Bang!" and "Egyptology," Wallinger's fourth studio album since leaving the Waterboys in the late '80s. While he remains a boldly derivative psychedelic, on this album of excavations -- personal, historical and musical -- those stylistic familiarities, cobbled together from the decades-old British pop vocabulary, are the foundation of a remarkable coherence. There's a difference, after all, between archaeology and grave robbery, and Wallinger is no thief.
The album's opener and first single, "It Is Time," kicks off with deliberate pretensions of improvisation -- a disjointed guitar strum is washed out by a raw drum roll, which then spills into a rollicking rave-up -- but "Egyptology" is anything but spontaneous. A notorious studio rat, Wallinger's baroque and flowery aesthetic comes through on even the sparest tracks. He plays everything on the disc except half the drum parts, and his guitar playing has never been stronger.
The effort shows on innovative early cuts such as "Call Me Up" or the curious "Vanity Fair," which is really two songs grafted together. The main is sung in the verses as if from under a cowboy hat, in a low voice over a dusty background, then choruses erupt in playful reverie with a rhyme scheme that's pure bubble gum.
At the heart of the album (tracks six through 10 of the 15-cut album) is a complex suite that could stand alone as an exquisite EP, but serves here instead as the broad centerpiece of a pop triptych. The suite opens with a short a cappella "Interlude," four measures of optimistic, high-octave harmonizing that echo Brian Wilson. It is a happy passage that soon slows and fades into the opening bars of "Curse of the Mummy's Tomb," a dark and dense Dylanesque tribute to the death of Wallinger's mother. "Hercules," which was written for Kurt Cobain, is a dirge lined with plush synthesizer strings and soaring arena guitar chords so smooth, so clean, that the song seems to redeem his suicide. And if Wallinger has conjured up ghosts by this point, they join in the singing of "Love is Best," a simple melody compelled by flourishes of howling background vocals. The five-song set closes on "Rolling Off a Log," on which castanets, clarinet and a dense orchestral arrangement build a song dripping with both political and personal history. With the album's closer, Wallinger returns to himself. "Always" starts with the same loose, folky synthesizer work that marked the songs from World Party's debut, "Private Revolution." It's a song about reincarnation, something that Wallinger himself seems to give testimony to: "The clock is ticking but your life will go on for always, always, always." Just as the song begins to fade out, there's a reprise that starts again, promising that somewhere the song repeats in a loop, playing on and on for always, always, always ...