Review Summary: Feel it all around.
If what makes an album great is how many indelible memories it can conjure up, then Happy Birthday
is the best album of the year. Lolling, warm waves of buzzing synths percolate through “Coastal,” a siren alarm peaking higher and higher as the track moves me 30,000 feet somewhere above Minnesota last summer. I’m sweaty and skittish on one too many tequila shots, that insidiously simple keyboard melody and roaring bass on “Phospholipid” soundtracking another night out at some sh
itty Koreatown bar. I’m playing the chopped ‘n screwed Beach Boys homage “Moon” over and over again, its bubbling, triumphant melody following me to work, to the gym, to sleep. Sputnik user Lucid described Happy Birthday
as a collection of tracks that “communicate the simple joys of life”. There’s really no better way to describe an album that transforms poorly named clichés left in the blogosphere trash bin – chillwave, folktronica, the wide-eyed optimism that peaked with M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
and died on November 8, 2016 – into a beguiling patchwork of pop music with stunning emotional depth.
That it comes from an artist who is practically unknown, self-released on Bandcamp after occasional singles dropped like breadcrumbs over the past few years, is fitting for music in 2017, a diaspora where nothing seems to grab the attention of the mainstream for long. On tracks like the amorphous, hazy anthem “All These Days / Smoke Signals,” Blood Cultures’ singing is nearly unintelligible, shrouded behind the layers of production that mark most of the songs here. The relatively straightforward, ascending and descending motif on “Inside” is striking for how naked the vocals sound on repeated listens, after it becomes clear that Happy Birthday
is the work of someone who prefers to operate behind a shroud (the fuzzy guitar solo that rears its fangs at the end of the track is almost as surprising). There’s little personal information about the producer/multi-instrumentalist who appears to handle everything on the record, except for the fact that he is based in New York City, began releasing tracks on SoundCloud in 2013, and may be into basketball, if his press photo is to be believed. His first song, “Indian Summer,” is the kind of track Washed Out would kill to be able to make again. Although a bit more derivative than what came after, “Indian Summer” is a convenient summary of Blood Cultures’ aesthetic: cloudy but groovy, cloaked under layers of intricate production and an appreciation of dynamics that is almost obsessive, and melodies that lodge in the brainstem.
Blood Cultures’ virtual anonymity only adds to Happy Birthday’s
blank slate vibe, the feeling that this is music made for you, the dreamy vocals a stand-in for your own thoughts, the fragmented beats and frazzled synths the manifestation of your own hopes and anxieties. It’s the rare album that refuses to be reduced to its component parts, which is impressive when considering a track like “Moon,” which comes off as the most effortless electro pop masterpiece in quite some time. Happy Birthday
instead prefers to coalesce into a seamless whole, interlocking parts unexpectedly metamorphosing into new songs and moods. Snippets of taped conversation and enigmatic samples flit in and out like ghosts, while bright, beaming keyboard notes unravel into distorted rhythms and grinding beats. The effect is an album that takes the long view, curating an emotional arc that starts with the luminous “Scenes From A Midnight Movie” and resolves with the nostalgic melancholy of the bare “Meavy Hetal.” Describing Happy Birthday
in specifics is fruitless; it’s the sort of record that revels in pregnant metaphors and vivid adjectives, a canvas for the listener to scribble over. Most tellingly, Happy Birthday
isn’t an album that gives itself over to easy summaries, because no one can tell you ahead of time what memory is going to stick with you, what will hurt the most or burn the brightest. You have to experience it yourself.