Some people turn to relaxing music in a crisis — ambient, new age, minimalist electronica. Others need chaos to drown out everything else — hardcore punk, industrial, noise. I need both, preferably at the same time. The albums reviewed below hide horror beneath smooth surfaces.
Soccer Mommy: Color Theory (Loma Vista)
Sophie Allison is the hookiest of the grunge-pop revivalists, embracing the form’s upbeat, artificial shimmer as well as its diaristic mode. Both sadder and faster than before, this glossy album fleshes out her sound.
With Soccer Mommy’s first album, Clean, Allison shrewdly exploited the genre’s lo-fi aesthetic: while she performed the majority of the songs by slowly strumming an acoustic guitar, drums and electronic polish were incorporated sneakily and seamlessly, and the few songs that rocked hard lent the whole album a restless energy. The subtlety suited her sad love songs, as their quiet heartache simmered.
Color Theory aspires to loud heartache: each song has a spiky neon riff embedded in warm guitar fuzz, following a careful pop formula that’s both bright and reticent. Her band sound sparkles, as guitars echo through an aqueous electric expanse. Her voice is mixed lower this time, often disappearing beneath the translucent jangle. It is a familiar indie rock strategy of juxtaposing sweet and sour, tempering catchy popcraft with abrasive, yet pleasurable quantities of distortion and melancholy.
The hooks both formalize her sadness — evoking the narrative conventions of confessional indie rock — and create the impression that she’s putting a brave face on things, trying to hide the quaver in her voice. It works because the hooks are particularly sugary and the misery particularly brutal, especially when she recounts grotesque bodily horror; on “Circle the Drain,” whose silver-coated guitar goes round and round in a depressive spiral, she sings, “I think there’s a mold in my brain spreading down all the way/through my heart and my body”; on “Crawling in My Skin,” whose ethereal crunch prickles with nervous tension, things get gory: “With blood on my lips like wine/my eyes glow in the knife/paralyzed.”
Demonstrating how a band’s sturdy presence can distort and amplify emotion, Color Theory treats ennui as an object of fascination. The paradox delights.
US Girls: Heavy Light (4AD/Royal Mountain)
Meghan Remy specializes in death disco; the soundtrack suits not a party celebrating the end of the world so much as one soured by knowledge that the end is nigh. On this album, the beats get tighter and more frantic to match a mood of heightened desperation.
US Girls’s sound is that of venom coated in honey. The musical surface is immaculate, as glistening keyboards, kinetic basslines, silky strings, and sporadically deployed guitar noise entwine to produce quirky, streamlined dance-pop, gliding playfully over bursts of dissonance that are subsumed into the liquid flow. Yet the neon synthesizers are just a little too glaring, the saxophone solos too sleazily off-key, and so a subdued sense of panic creeps in. Behold dance music’s communal energy being stunted, turning nightmarishly inward, as the electric motion becomes nervous rather than cathartic (this is generally known as “white funk syndrome”).
Remy’s lyrics are invariably political, but these aren’t protest songs, exactly; they indict her subjects, herself, and listeners, because we’re all trapped in the same system. Her last album, 2018’s In a Poem Unlimited, was a detached taxonomy of sexism, coldly cataloguing the oppression of women; this album addresses capitalism. It is fixated on work and money (“You can do a lot with four American dollars,” she announces), seemingly hovering on the edge of social and environmental collapse. (In “The Quiver to the Bomb,” the earth comes alive and kicks humanity “off her land.”)
It’s a stiffer, texturally thicker listen, weighed down by spoken-word interludes where she asks bystanders personal questions and overdubs their responses into polyphony. (The confluence of answers is supposed to reveal common humanity or something.) But sonic density yields rewards, especially in the form of demented percussion tracks: the plastic, conga-esque patter in “4 American Dollars” is as horrorstruck as the pounding industrial clang in “Red Ford Radio,” possessed by paranoid rhythm.
Given such scary songs, some might say the bouncy music provides relief, or insinuates the lyrics into your brain, but that’s too easy — the excitement and emotion is a reminder that oppression happens to real people. The mournful, relentless beat goes on.
Lapsley: Through Water (XL)
Lapsley’s EDM-derived art-pop has a poetic mystery about it at odds with the genre’s functionalism. On this album — an ambient fragmentation of her previous style — the English singer-songwriter gets lost in a wintry soundscape.
The album title can be taken literally: these sound like pop songs heard through an underwater tunnel. Beats are slowed, keyboards blurred, hooks attenuated into flowery spirals. The song structures disappear beneath waves of thin, frigid electronic sound, flowing over the piano chords and plinking drum machines, seeping into corners.
The title track, on which she reads a speech about sustainable development (written by her father, a water engineer), suggests an oblique response to climate change (“The majority of impacts will be felt through water”). Although the nature imagery in the other songs goes in a more figurative, emotional, and romantic direction (“My Love Was Like the Rain,” “Our Love Is a Garden,” “Sadness Is a Shade of Blue”), there’s a quiet alarm in the way Lapsley floats through flooded sonic wreckage, uneasily enjoying the calm after the storm.
Eerily soporific, drifting in and out of consciousness, the textures could be squelchier with no loss of ethereality; the songs rarely leave a realm of skeletal abstraction, and Lapsley’s voice — projecting the pinched, sour Brit-soul of James Blake or Sam Smith — does not fill the space. The most realized song is the danciest: “Womxn,” whose lurid synth bass and electronic frills shine like sunlight refracted through a pool. In this musical context, the muted drop resounds.
As an attempt to capture a nebulous mood, this album is unfocused almost by design. It chills, but it doesn’t move.
The Weeknd: After Hours (XO/Republic)
For almost a decade now, Abel Tesfaye has cultivated an alienated party-boy persona, lamenting his guilty indulgences while flitting through dark electronic shadows — a project that started in pointed online anonymity and led to unlikely megastardom. This is the Canadian R&B singer’s shiniest and most incisive pop album, but that dead, empty feeling still lurks beneath the surface.
This album’s distinguishing quality is its concision. Ensconced firmly in his generic template of atmospheric electro-R&B, adorned occasionally by moist rhythm guitar, saxophone pomp, and other ’80s retro touches, it’s as blank and shimmery as every other contemporary pop album that’s been diluted by a streaming-era desire for chill, but it’s tautened somehow here, shaped into sprightliness. While remaining mid-tempo, these songs lock into a durable groove, coasting on melodic sweetness and airy vibes; they emit a summery pastel glow. “Blinding Lights” even has a glitzy roller disco keyboard hook.
Lyrically, it’s more of the same: he ponders hedonism, drugs, and (increasingly) his failure to commit romantically with such solemnity he ends up (accidentally?) endorsing a duller, more conventional morality than is initially apparent, reducing himself to a stock bogeyman. Sometimes he gestures vaguely toward personal growth — on “Hardest to Love,” he apologizes to a lover for his wicked ways and promises to do better in the future, and the warm keyboard swirl throws back his sorrowful reflection. On “Heartless” he laments, “Trying to be a better man, but I’m heartless.”
These confessions raise his usual shtick to a higher level of self-referentiality, several convolutions in. If he were really trying to evolve, why not just write a straightforward love song? Perhaps because his voice, a theatrical falsetto sneer designed to flaunt his tortured anomie, would give the game away.
He’s lightening up, but it’s hard to shake off soul rot. He’s exhausted his performance of exhaustion.