When I first started writing about Nitin Sawhney’s album Beyond Skin, I had intended this review to be part of an article I am writing about downtempo albums. However, when doing the research for this article I realised that to do the album justice, it would be better if I wrote a more in depth review because this is an important and complex album, which features and highlights many important and relevant issues in the modern world. 

Nitin Sawhney’s album Beyond Skin was released in 1999 on the Outcaste label and was nominated for the 1999 Mercury Prize . It was Sawhney’s second album and is a album that requires, and deserves, the listener’s close attention. This album is a complex and beautiful piece of music. Sawhney described the album as “a mixture of Indian classical music, flamenco, acoustic drum and bass, hip-hop, jazz and soul. He goes on to describe the album as “a profoundly humanist album”. Although Sawhney  believes in Hindu philosophy, he states that he is not a religious person.  

Broken Skin is an album with a theme. The album’s theme challenges the theories behind nationality and identity, and also explores, and focuses on the theme of nuclear weapons. In the album’s sleeve-notes Sawhney describes the album as one with a time span that run backwards starting with India testing three nuclear weapons in 1998 to 1945, two years prior to India becoming independent, when Robert Openheimer created the first nuclear weapon. After the first nuclear test, Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita, the equivalent of the Hindu Bible, condemning what he had created. He tearfully said “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. Interestingly, that quote is used at the end of the final track, Beyond Skin. When you listen to that track, and hear that quote, it is truly a thought provoking and incredibly moving piece of music. That to me, is probably one of the finest songs on the album. However, almost all of the album’s twelve tracks are strong. 

The albums opener Broken Skin, which features Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee announcing India’s testing of three nuclear weapons and then goes on to feature a beautiful vocal performance of lovely lyrics by Shri. On the album’s second track Letting Go, Tina Grace gives a stunning vocal performance that increased the impact of the lyrics. Homelands is another excellent track which has a lovely atmospheric feel. The use of a wide range of instruments on this track gives the track a depth, with many layer of sounds appearing and combining to produce one of the best tracks on the album.

Sawhney is joined on the album by, amongst others, Jayanta Bose and Marque Gilmore and the album features a glorious collection of instruments including tablas, violins and flamenco guitars. This is evident on The Pilgrim, which features Rajendra Singh vocals and some masterful drum programming . The song at the end features a spoken word sample. 

On the track Tides, the track opens with a clip about France conducting an underground nuclear bomb test. The use of the clip and the wonderful piano solo and a sparing use of percussion and double bass make this, for me one of the best songs on the album.

Nadia features a lovely vocal from Swati Natekar. The song starts slowly and then the pace increases, with some subtle drum programming interplaying and complimenting the vocal performance. On Immigrant a spoken word sample of Sawhney’s father stars the track, and then Jayanata Bose’s vocal begins. She has a beautiful voice that compliments the intelligent and moving lyrics. This is the best song on the album by far.

Serpents is a song that brings to mind exotic and interesting faraway places. The combination vocals, vocal rhythms and instrumentation combine to hold the listener’s attention and make this track an intersting one, although not as good as what precedes it. 

Anthems Without Nations begins with a spoken word sample about a nuclear blast, and then goes on to feature the most haunting and beautiful vocal. It is an atmospheric track that one will never tire of hearing. Nostalgia a song about immigration, also begins with a spoken word sample. It then goes on to feature another great vocal from Tina Grace. Sawhney’s choice of vocalists on this album has been masterful. They really increase the impact of the tracks and hold the listener’s attention.

The penultimate song on the album The Conference, sadly to me, is the weakest song on the album. It begins with a spoken word sample and features a faster drum beat and vocal than anywhere else on the album. This track seems out of place on this album, and does not have the quality of the other eleven tracks. Broken Skin is the final song on the album, and as previously mentioned is both thought provoking and incredibly moving track.

I believe that this album is well worth adding to your collection. This is an intelligent and thought provoking album that has the courage to deal with some important and controversial subjects. Sawnhey has had the courage to tackle these themes and in doing so, has done this successfully. He has produced an album that he can be proud of. The themes to be found within this album are important ones, ones that have touched and affected all of our lives, and that of two generations of people. Sawnhey here is educating the listener, challenging their intellect, wanting them to investigate the subject matter more thoroughly, and form opinions of their own. I hope that he has been successful, as the issues are ones we need to contemplate carefully. However, this album can be listened to an two levels. Firstly, you can treat this album as almost a concept album where you can take time to listen to the subtle nuances, themes and ideas within the album. This is whar I have done. Alternatively, if you don’t want to do that, you can just spend time listening to a glorious album, featuring some wonderful music, musicians and vocalists. Either way, you will enjoy this album and return to it time and time again. I hope that this review has made you want to investigate this album and the various themes that are to found upon it. Standout Tracks: Broken Skin, Tides, Anthem Without Nations, Nadia and Beyond Skin.


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