Review Summary: Unabashed beauty
Using the term ‘pretentious’ to describe any piece of art implies that you, the audience, knows more about the art than the artist him/herself. The artist tries to convey meaning through music in a way that is dysfunctional, cliched, or worse: lacking self-awareness. The term is abused during music discussion. And yet when an album comes along that lacks any pretension whatsoever, the quality is ignored, and the simplicity and the directness of the music becomes a quality to be criticized rather than celebrated.
Cigarettes After Sex is as heavy-handed as stage names get. It reeks of millennial sexual angst: it’s dramatic and precociously casual, presenting a half-romantic image of hookup culture that relishes in the pain that comes with it. It’s easy to see the name as a title of a horrible tumblr poem or a high schooler’s tinder bio. As an album title, it signals a lyrical trainwreck.
The beauty of “Cigarettes After Sex,” the debut eponymous LP by songwriter Greg Gonzalez and his three-piece backing band, is that the record never aspires beyond the limitations of its premise. Snapshots of ‘modern’ heartbreak, where confusion about the status of a relationship makes drawing lines of physical and romantic intimacy near impossible, provide the lyrical direction of the record. Gonzales’ phrasing is precise yet restrained throughout. He never attempts to make grandiose connections between the scenes he describes and a vague universal meaning. Instead, the simple, pleading phrases throughout the record stand on their own. These are 2017 love songs without 2017’s neurotic digital overload.
The dream-pop arrangements on the record serve as a perfect pairing. Each is nearly minimalist in its construction. The tracks on “Cigarettes After Sex” utilize beautiful arpeggiating guitar lines to provide a counter-melody to Gonzales’s silky tenor, which stays locked in an octave-and-a-half range throughout the album. The bass and drums anchor each track without ever drawing attention to themselves. The result is a record whose indulgence in melodic and atmospheric beauty is effortlessly intoxicating.
In an inundated music scene, it can feel impossible to differentiate one group from another, and many groups utilize gimmicks to try to separate themselves from the pack. On the other hand, “Cigarettes After Sex” distills years of dream pop – atmospheric production with tinges of soft fuziness, gliding vocal and guitar melodies, and romantic lyrics – into a simple formula that works song after song. It’s Gonzales’s embrace of dream pop’s core elements that, ironically, set him apart. It’s beautiful music, nothing more, and certainly nothing less.