The Dalai Lama, Inner World (Gaden Phodrang Foundation)
At the prime age of 85, the D. Lama finally dropped his first tape in 2020, and it was every bit as ethereally soothing, eternally wise. and achingly pure as you would expect from The One. A cleansing soundbath, a cure for headaches, an escape from worldly grime, a meditation companion, a series of prayers and incantations you may not understand but certainly can feel if listening with an open enough mind. What was surprising was how well the record is constructed, how it comes together and flows as a singular piece of art. Let’s face it, The Big D could have just phoned this thing in and it would have been revered by millions just for the lead artist name alone, a respectable piece of world music to throw on for the last half of the yoga class or the morning shift at the eastern trinkets store. But it’s obvious that a lot of thought has been put into Inner World; the clear-as-a-bell production is pristine and the track sequencing flawless, with the songs themselves being varied and rich, creating the type of journey one would expect from only the best concept albums. A musical foundation laid down by traditional Tibetan instruments, rich flutes and bending sitars and delicate hand cymbals, washes of rain and wind, minimalist chanting…but the real selling point is The D Himself, gently but insistently reciting prayers, bits of wisdom and various new age flights of fancy. Like only the best MCs, Dalai Lama is always on the beat, always finding his pocket, never overstays his welcome, and knows when to fall back and let the music do the talking. In short, The Dalai Lama goes in on Inner World, and it’s a truly wonderful thing to behold.
A key track on the first half is “Compassion”, which utilizes a sneakily insistent rhythm, a gently pulsing synth, and chanting from DL so on point it almost sounds like a sample to achieve four stunning minutes of true goosebumps music. Another standout, “Ama La”, actually sounds like something that could be found on the back half of an Incredible String Band record. When the dueling sitars kick in at the 1:25 mark and the tablas start to pound, it sounds like the whole track is sliding off the face of the planet. It’s easily the best jam on here, and DL is wise to let it run for a couple of minutes before bringing it all home with the most forceful prayer on Inner World, with an abrupt cutoff for extra emphasis. There’s an aching tinge to “Healing” with its languid acoustic fills and female backing moans, with even the generally positive DL sounding effectively low energy and gentle, the album’s most melancholy cut, which has the vibe of drinking up the poison of the world. It’s companion piece, “Wisdom”, is even better, coming up for air with a bright saxophone that clashes nicely against the Tibetan arpeggios as DL rides over top with a four-word chant that grounds the proceedings on a bedrock of greatness.
To recognize the full majesty of Inner World, the final three-song suite needs to be taken in as a whole. “Protection” kicks it off with a decidedly tripped-out maelstrom of echoes, murmurs, repeated chants, and a horns break that MGMT would kill to have come up with, short and sweet at under three minutes. “Protection” runs straight into the xylophone-tinged “Children” where DL drops the chanting and lets his muse flow free for two stunning minutes of fully positive reflections on kids, the cycle of life, knowledge, and teaching the children well. But he doesn’t stop there, bringing his spiel deeper onto “Humanity” where he speaks out against killing, abuse, bullying, exploitation and the enemies of oneness and compassion without ever crossing the line into righteousness of finger pointing. After allowing the music to do the talking for much of the album, DL lets it rip over these two final tracks with message you would be hard pressed to find any fault in, and when his speech gives way to deep chants and crackling vinyl scratches on the outro you would have to be dead inside not to feel something/anything.
With Inner World there can be no doubt that the Dalai Lama has pieced together the purest, most rawly honest and well-meaning record record to drop during a decidedly dark year. In no way is IW a reaction against that darkness or against anything or anyone; it’s simply a defiantly bright stake in ever shifting sands that feels solid enough to stay the duration. And there isn’t a single close competitor for our favorite 2020 record.