Aphex Twin, a.k.a. Richard D. James, introduced himself to the world with a head fake. From its title, his debut album, 1992’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92, looked like a best-of collection—hardly what you’d expect from a newcomer. Two years later, the follow-up maintained the ruse: None of its 20-odd tracks (the precise number differed according to format and country) had been previously released save for “Blue Calx,” which first appeared on a 1992 compilation. But Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 was more straightforward than its predecessor in one crucial way. Where Aphex Twin’s debut mostly showcased ethereal techno and breakbeat house, SAW 2 zeroed in on the purist essence of ambient music, much as Brian Eno had established it 16 years earlier: beatless, mysterious, and as ineffable as a beam of sunlight.
James, cryptic as always, claimed he had recorded much of the album by practicing lucid dreaming—making music in a semiconscious state, essentially—and it’s not hard to believe, given the music’s hazy, otherworldly tones. Detuned synthesizers clink like melting wind chimes; wordless voices droop like wilting flowers, halfway between a lullaby and a sigh. The childlike quality of Aphex Twin’s albums from later in the decade here manifests itself as the spookiest sort of melancholy, suggesting haunted dollhouses in the cobwebbed attics of houses where nobody has lived for a long, long time. In contrast to much of the contemporaneous ambient music that soundtracked the era’s chillout rooms, SAW 2 has little interest in kitsch, exotica, futurist fantasies, or virtually any kind of communal experience: It’s private music that feels like floating in space, far from any human contact. Yet that chilliness, that sense of isolation, and that very unknowability are exactly what have kept fans transfixed for decades.