One legend’s musically questionable misadventure
Over the course of his long and illustrious career, Bruce Hornsby has ascended to ultimately become an inarguable icon and artistic maverick. He’s won a handful of Grammys in a variety of genres, and has explored more musical territory than practically every other established artist. Despite this, he wants to continue exploring, and it’s clear that what Hornsby is exploring on Non-Secure Connection is deeply important to him, and has been on his mind for a while. Hornsby gathered a cast of all-stars to fill out his feature list, including legendary The Shins frontman James Mercer, neo soul savant Jamila Woods, guitar god Vernon Reid, and genre-hopping pop king Leon Russell, so it must be a special occasion. Unfortunately, while every feature delivers beautifully, Hornsby is often the glaring weak spot on his own album.
“Cleopatra Drones” would be an interesting introduction, if not for the lack of any significant musical development over the course of the song, aside from the late addition of some unimpressive drums. It effectively establishes the playful yet skeptical and mildly paranoid ethos of Non-Secure Connection, and Hornsby’s focus on piano as the center piece on this project. “Time, The Thief” is an album highlight, exploring Hornsby’s trouble with the fast-moving and unforgiving nature of time, while also noting the effect that sharing this experience with another individual can have on one’s perception of the passage of time. The instrumentation is nice, but in similar fashion to the intro, a little more variation would’ve been nice, especially considering the deeply emotional and existential subject matter.
The bedrock of the album—Hornsby’s views on how technology is affecting humanity—really starts to come into focus on the title track. Unfortunately, with its direct mentions of data theft and the “too-big-to-fails” among other worries, it’s often so on the nose that some of the meaning ends up lost in translation. “The Rat King” is one of the album’s better tracks practically by default, thanks to its solid vocal performance, and still sparse but gorgeous (and just enough) piano and strings. Non-Secure Connection’s best instrumentation, some of Hornsby’s most grounded and honest lyrics and James Mercer’s brief but lovely appearance all mesh extremely well on “My Resolve,” making it easily the best track on the album. Brave admittances like, “My ineptitude stares me down/ In this space, I cower/ And I try to stand above the fray,” are made inspiring by the bright and deeply encouraging strings.
“Bright Star Cast” is carried by excellent feature work from Jamila Woods and Vernon Reid, before the project really starts to fall apart with “Shit’s Crazy Out Here.” The “shit’s crazy” refrain gets annoying very quickly, and by the end of the song, it all just feels like a terribly unfunny Scooby-Doo skit. “Anything Can Happen” comes next, and is solid for the most part (especially the late Leon Russell’s feature), but is violently kneecapped by Hornsby’s sickly sweet and blindly optimistic lyrics. Also, it’s unclear whether or not the “Let me wear the pants and you wear nothing” line is aggressively misogynistic, or just really dumb.
Finally, “Porn Hour.” The song’s primary subject matter, the fact that the pornography industry drives much technological innovation (this is an actual fact), is genuinely interesting, and could be developed artistically from a number of different angles. One could turn this into an allegory for humans’ desperation for romance and gratification, no matter how artificial, or even how technology has managed to invade the most private corners of people’s existence. Hornsby opted instead to talk about how he, “make[s] new friends on porn star chats/ [he] know[s] all the big boob sites,” over annoying piano stabs. If this is meant to reinforce the meaning of the chorus, it failed miserably. To say this provokes a uniquely intense discomfort would be an understatement. The album concludes with “No Limits,” on which Hornsby invokes positive images of how he’s in a euphoric state and will, “kiss the moment, then watch it run away so fast.” While none of this can save the album, it is a nice place to end.
It’s clear throughout this project that it was never Hornsby’s goal to break new instrumental ground. This is a clear detriment to the project, and what Hornsby probably wants the listener to take away from his often extremely valid worries about what technology has done to people’s personal lives. This is further proven by the fact that the album’s most affecting moments are also its most instrumentally successful (”My Resolve”). Hornsby’s tendency to either do way too much or far too little lyrically also get in the way of these ten tracks becoming anything more than a playlist from which a devoted fan can pick and choose their one or two favorites. There are genuinely interesting concepts lying under the surface of Non-Secure Connection. An analysis of how the proliferation of technology in our everyday lives is inherently intriguing. Many artists have attempted this analysis before, many other artists will attempt this analysis in the future; it’s a good thing, because, for the most part, this album is utterly unsuccessful.