Thundercat — aka Stephen Bruner — is one of the most in-demand bassists in the Los Angeles studio scene, a collaborator with hip-hop giant Kendrick Lamar, electronic innovator Flying Lotus, jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington and neo-soul pioneer Erykah Badu, among others.
Each of his solo albums reflects that musical range, and "Drunk" (Brainfeeder) crams 23 songs and snippets into 51 minutes that evoke the sumptuous jazz-infused R&B of the '70s, filtered through catchy melodies, undergirded by virtuoso musicianship and salted with conflicting emotions.
Earth Wind & Fire flashbacks emerge, though Thundercat's lyrics are quite a bit less cosmic and uplifting than Maurice White's. Thundercat is way quirkier and more conflicted. His album is less about communing with the angels than mucking around at the end of a bar "drowning away all the pain."
He's not exactly predictable. One minute, Thundercat's imitating a meowing cat, playing a lecherous rogue or blowing all his cash on Japanese anime, the next he's contemplating the world's unforgiving nature or imagining himself as an astronaut ready to join Sun Ra on his intergalactic voyages.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald Sun
Even as Thundercat's assertive bass lines — springy enough to accommodate any musical genre — and falsetto vocals give "Drunk" buoyancy, his lyrics twist and turn into strange and often forbidding psychic cul de sacs.
The potential for an album that feels slipshod or disjointed is high, but it's anchored by superb performances — the baroque keyboards of Dennis Hamm on "DUI" or the queasy strings of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson evoking the "descent into madness" that is "Inferno." Thundercat flashes his ferocious chops on "Uh Uh," scurrying alongside guitar and piano while a wordless vocal melody floats over the top. Like many of the songs, it's here and gone after a mere two minutes, and then Thundercat shifts into the twinkling pop melody of "Bus in These Streets" while "watching the world go insane."
The album's eclecticism improbably makes room for '70s pop crooners Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, who take a verse each to meditate on spirituality and perseverance on "Show You the Way." On the very next track, the vocal duo's polar opposite — Lamar — contributes to the encroaching isolation of "Walk on By." Perhaps it's a good thing that Thundercat has collected so many high-profile friends, because this album could easily have turned into a quagmire of self-doubt and despair.
It appears the shroud of mortality and mourning draped over his 2013 album "Apocalypse" and 2015 EP "The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam" hasn't completely been lifted. "Drunk" ends exactly as advertised — in an alcoholic fog. Even the normally cheerful Pharrell Williams sounds lost in the haze on "The Turn Down." On the closing "DUI," Thundercat offers no hopeful resolutions: "Where this ends we'll never know." No wonder his music sounds so unsettled.