Review Summary: I wish some of this sugar did indeed burn, to provide some much needed bitterness.
There’s something appealing in slow, brooding, twilight or darkness. Many trip hop artists use this to their advantage, creating music that is at once infinitely calming, yet unnerving or slightly off-centre. Genre pioneers Portishead for instance, with their sophomore self-titled 1997 album, paint a bleak picture borrowing from genres like jazz, creating a film noir like soundscape offset by Beth Gibbons’ ice cold and razor sharp voice. At the other end of the spectrum are groups like Morcheeba, who use trip hop to create relaxing, warm places to get lost in, carefully avoiding any traces of darkness or unease to maximise the calming effect.
Upon seeing the cover of Dot Allison’s debut, one would assume we’re safely in Portishead’s brand of gloomy trip hop. However, when the album was first released in 1999, a totally different cover was used. If Discogs is to be believed, only 400 copies of this first pressing remain. This original cover puts Afterglow in Morcheeba territory instead. Was it a wise decision to opt for the darker, eerie version, or is it the original cover that better reflects the music？ As a side note, the track list was also rigorously changed between versions. This review uses the second listing, as it is assumed this is seen as the superior version by both artist and label.
To be blunt and answer the question immediately: this album is sweet. It’s like spun sugar. It’s a cotton candy overdose. This is clear from the get go, with Tomorrow Never Comes, which clearly reminds us of Morcheeba and Moby. The vocals here are monotone and stripped of every grit they might have had. Sometimes, the album takes this sweetness and veers into full blown saccharine overdose. Mo’Pop with its la-la-la chorus and synthetic saxophone lines and especially Did I Imagine You?, which even sounds like Enya with all of its syrupy sugar and cheese are the biggest offenders of this.
There are some short moments of respite, where the barrage on the enamel is shortly interrupted. Album opener Colour Me features a nice bassline and some darker tones in the chorus. I Wanna Feel The Chill is true to its name, incorporating a sad piano and airy guitar, with a dissonant choir of Dot Allisons that spice up the mix. Album highlight Morning Sun takes its time to grow, but does feature truly sunny colours, tinged with a darker undertone and well used sitar. However, these moments of shade are few and far between and make the sugar overload of the biggest part of the album painfully clear.
Another issue this album has is its pacing. There’s no real momentum-building to be found here. Afterglow is a collection of songs rather than an album which grows with each additional track. All songs have their own, clear identity, but since the sweetness almost never lets go, its modest, just shy of fifty minutes runtime can become overbearing. The fact that all of the biggest syrup moments are at the album’s end, and one of the only darker tracks is used as the album’s opener, does not help to remedy this.
While it does feature some great tracks, like Morning Sun and Colour Me, Dot Allison’s debut is way too sweet to truly convince. The album art change raises questions, since the first cover is a way better fit with the music. Even the title is misleading. Afterglow suggests that something has burned brightly and that only dark cinders remain, softly shining in the dark. I wish some of this sugar did indeed burn, to provide some much needed bitterness.