Have we gotten to an end-point in music at which authenticity and sincerity has little to no inherent connection to the instruments used to compose it? As more and more people grow up connected to electronic music, will the keyboard, the laptop, and the drum machine become symbols for direct, honest expression the same way an acoustic guitar and a bar stool did for previous generations? We’re getting more and more records that take the tools that previously defined slick, escapist synth-pop and use them to make wounded, lonely records far from dancefloor escapism.
Montreal songwriter Devon Welsh feels like a refugee from the 80s heyday of handsome keyboard crooners who’s seeking shelter in our more minimalist present. His voice, as dapper as it is dour, fits in the lineage of smooth Euro mopers like OMD’s Andy McCluskey or Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan. His music, made under the sorta shameless name Majical Cloudz, has more in common with the still ache of James Blake's work. (Like a lot of young artists, including Blake, Welsh admits to an Arthur Russell infatuation.) Open spaces aren’t entirely novel. Listening to a classic record from that vintage of British synth-pop like OMD’s Dazzle Ships, you seldom find yourself thinking, “Boy, this is just way too full of sounds!” But where those records echo like the interior of some pristine science lab, Welsh shrinks his sound even further. His Matador Records’ debut, Impersonator, resembles the quiet murmurs in your own head if you clamped your hands over your ears super tight in order to just really focus on whatever nagging thought won’t stop looping inside it.
The album’s songs are uniformly beautiful and austere, but they’re better when they’re allowed to develop slightly—when firmer beats are allowed to exist within them, and all that inward brooding is focused toward something external. “Childhood’s End” is built up from a skittish drumpad heartbeat. Welsh’s naked croon is rounded out by the faint, cold breeze of a small-scale string arrangement. Narrating the bleak early-life trauma of a friend’s dad mercilessly gunned down, the song’s story feels bigger than Welsh himself. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from making its biggest melodic hook a recitation of “Me, me, meeeeeeee!”
On “Bugs Don’t Buzz,” Welsh states his aversion to happy endings and breezy pop feelings. “The cheesiest songs all end with a smile. This won’t end with a smile.” He makes you consider the finer distinction between cheesy and embarrassing. Unlike a lot of his R&B-obsessed peers, Welsh keeps his delivery relatively unadorned with showy vocal undulating. His music is tastefully straightforward, with few elements distracting from that deep, sensual gaze of a voice. But it’s all so solemn and serious that you kind of want to giggle. Over the length of Impersonator all this intimacy ends up exhausting, a late night conversation that gets so real you want to talk about TV, or anything else, for just a little while. As Welsh develops as a songwriter, he could stand to move a few clicks back to standard synth-pop moves—to broadcast a little less emotion in his music and add just a little more motion.
Featuring members of Cop-enhagen punk-scene stalwarts like Iceage, Lower, and Sexdrome, Vår is probably as close as the Danish underground can get to a synth-pop supergroup. As committed as they are to incorporating harsh industrial beats, sampling broken glass, and evoking corroded, queasy landscapes, they’d probably bristle against being defined simply as “synth-pop.” Their music harks back to when synths first became cheap and available across Europe, resulting in piles of quickly made, mostly forgotten singles with synthetic sounds wrangled into a spectrum of microgenres veering from ultra-abrasive noise punk to super-sweet lo-fi. There’s a pervasive romantic streak in Vår’s music that takes it a long way from sneering brutality.
Vocal duties on No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers, the band’s first record for Brooklyn label Sacred Bones, are split between Iceage’s pouty punk Elias Ronnenfelt and Sexdrome singer Loke Rahbek (who doubles as the influential young label head of Posh Isolation Records). It’s the project that lets these bloody faced bruisers be softer, queerer, less sure of themselves—and vulnerability provides much of its appeal. Rahbek’s got the dark charisma of the late 70s’ best post-punk oddballs, his tone somehow stern and petulant at the same time. Ronnenfelt is the sweet one here, saving his possessed Iceage howls to focus on elongated smears of melodic melancholy. When the two sing together, as on album highlight “Pictures of Today/Victorial,” it’s got the right push and pull between sinister clarity and daydreamy remove. As intensely personal and serious as this music is, it allows the listener space that the Majical Cloudz record doesn’t. It errs on the side of being too far away rather than too close. There’s room to project yourself inside it.
What’s most surprising about the record is just how gentle it can be. As Pharmakon’s Margaret Chardiet gives a gothy-teen tone poem against slightly queasy, slightly twinkling synths, the sound resembles mid-career work from French synth-pop stars M83 as much as it does some impeccably chosen obscurity from Berlin ’81. The words are unexpected too, broadcasting nostalgia for bare feet on “moss-covered rocks” without abandoning its distinctly urban textures. “Into Distance” balances insistent percussion with warm trumpet notes. It’s not all puffy clouds and chill vibes or anything, but it’s not so harsh that it can’t be consoling.
So, are we done with the dreaded “singer-songwriter” tag immediately denoting quaint visions of a West Village folk club? Having already conquered rap production and indie-rock circles, have synths become the soulful Elliott Smith fan’s weapon of choice as well? When even corroded metal starts sounding like a warm embrace, what tools are left to unsettle listeners? Someone’s going to have to figure out a new way to really freak everyone out with an acoustic guitar, perhaps.