A lot has changed, both personally and professionally, in the world of Aesop Rock (AKA Ian Bavitz) since we last heard from him on 2007’s None Shall Pass. On a personal level, this album seems to have come from a place of inner turmoil, generated by events is his life you can read about elsewhere. Professionally, he is on a new label (Rhymesayers), and Skelethon represents an album that is entirely self-produced, a first for the artist. It is also conspicuously lacking in guest rappers. This is very much an Aesop Rock production, born entirely of his musical language, and an album that I feared might never arrive following the hiatus of Def Jux.

Having said that, some things never change. He can still twist his lyrics in mind-bending ways. It is still pretty difficult to decipher exactly what he is talking about most of the time. His voice still sounds like liquid metal, and that vocal dexterity remains a joy to behold. The more things change, the more they stay the same apparently, and Skelethon contains the mix of straight-up bangers, curveballs, and claustrophobic production you would expect from an Aesop Rock record. It also mixes the darkly humorous and the deadly serious in a way that only jars when he wants it to.

Within seconds of the opener “Leisureforce,” after a chiming guitar intro, Bavitz is setting the tone with talk of St. Peter and cheating death, but it is on “ZZZ Top” that the album’s sonic palette is most obviously introduced. The reliance on the sound of live instrumentation and drums does him a lot of favours, reminiscent of DJ Shadow is his mid-’90s peak, although as always it is his own voice that is pushed high in the mix. “Zero Dark Thirty” mixes more muted snare and portentous bass with the subtlest string section, displaying Bavitz’s instinct for texture over bombast.

Lyrically, the artist contrasts heavy imagery with almost trivial throwaway thoughts, although as I’ve previously mentioned, good luck deciphering half of this stuff. On the one hand, “Ruby ’81” is a creepy narrative about a child’s near drowning. On the other hand, the excellent “Racing Stripes” appears to be about haircuts. Aesop Rock is nothing if not elusive. The album’s only melodic hook, from guest vocalist Kimya Dawson on “Crows 1,” is like a nursery rhyme from a nightmare.

While there is clarity in the production, Skelethon does remain an album with a heavy cloud hovering over it. Quite what that cloud is remains unclear until the closing moments of album finale “Gopher Guts,” a track on which Bavitz suddenly becomes crystal clear in his message and startlingly confessional about his shortcomings, most painfully in the line “I have been a bastard to the people who have actively attempted to deliver me from peril.”

This line is in such contrast to what has come before that it could only be the album closer. Anything after that sucker punch would feel completely superfluous, and it certainly brings the album back into focus after a slight midpoint lapse that is not atypical of an Aesop Rock album. Even as far back as the excellent Labor Days and Bazooka Tooth, all of his albums have felt like they would have been considered classics had two or three songs being left out, and Skelethon is no different.

The album remains another compelling and cryptic piece of work. Bavitz has suggested in interviews that both production and rhyming remain a learning curve for him, and that he still feels there is plenty of room for improvement. Over a decade into the career of one of underground hip-hop’s most fascinating talents, this is another record of transition, with enough high points to warrant close listening. As for Aesop Rock himself, he remains the restless artist, the enigma with the impossible flow. It’s good to have him back.

Check out the martial arts-tastic video for “Zzz Top” below:

For more info on Aesop Rock, including his show at El Rey Theater tomorrow night (7/13/12), visit his website.