Review Summary: Dream pop: flat line edition
There’s been a tendency for the most impressive pop (and associated sub-genres) of 2019 to set its sights firmly on past heydays. Weyes Blood took inspiration from the 60s and 70s, Lizzo worked up a pastiche of all things retro as a foundation for her sassy tour-de-force, Carly Rae Jepsen repurposed the cutting edge of the 80s with as much contemporary production as she could splash out on, newcomers Two People and Nilüfer Yanya repurposed 90s trip-hop and pop-rock respectively, and all the while the sepia-toned shadow of Her Jaded Majesty Lana Del Rey looms over us all. Consequentially, it feels a little tiresome to introduce Hatchie (aka Harriette Pilbeam) as an indie-pop musician who - wait for it - repurposes 80s dream pop and early 90s shoegaze sounds for contemporary consumption as though that were something remarkable. No slight on Hatchie; those influences are definitely practical and promising in their own right, but it feels pretty unrealistic to be impressed by yet another breakout artist cherrypicking songwriting templates from their favourite decade aisle at their local record store. There’s still a fair bit to be excited about - the kind of people who love Cocteau Twins, Ride, Chapterhouse and co. are very much still kicking around and interested in what a fresh contemporary voice has to offer that style. So, what’s the deal？
The simple, unfortunate fact is that I failed to notice how much I took the innovations, subtle or otherwise, of all the above artists for granted until I heard Hatchie. Sure, Two People and Weyes Blood don’t possess many qualities of contemporary specificity, but they made up up for it by immersing themselves in their craft to the point that they owned
their influences. Now, the immediate thing to clarify with Hatchie is that she does not so much make dream pop her own (not for lack of trying) as she copy and pastes its core components into a sonic current with enough momentum to seem atmospheric but not too much to overturn a carefully launched lido. There’s a Borges short story, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
, that outlines the efforts of the fictional Pierre Menard as he attempts to immerse himself in the presence and style of Cervantes to the degree that he can recreate Don Quixote
line-for-line; if Titanic Rising
suggests an songwriter who lives, breathes and dreams herself as a tragic heroine watching over the dying days of Golden Age Hollywood, the exo-artist suggested by Keepsake
would be a college kid too square to try acid but more than happy to show off the neat row of freshly purchased Mazzy Star patches stitched into her backpack, all while trying to remember the words to Fade Into You
Now, I don’t imagine that Hatchie herself is anything like this creatively or personally, but this is not a healthy impression to take away from any album. While I feel its harshness is more than justified by the level of tedium Keepsake
has put me through, a full breakdown of its strengths and many failings is a fairly simple matter. Dream pop is one of the most unproblematically homogenous genres in the game thanks to its focus on atmosphere over compositional boldness, and this has carried many of its most successful outings to completion hitch-free. Loveless
, for instance, is one of the most structurally unremarkable albums ever to reach classic status, but people quite rightly do not discuss it in these terms because its emphasis is laid squarely on its aesthetic. And so, it’s not necessarily a red flag that the fact that 80% of the on Keepsake
here is interchangeable with itself and the remaining 20% (which we’ll get to) only deviates minorly from the rest of the album.
What calls things into question is general lack of engaging qualities in that 80%. Let’s start with Hatchie’s voice, which is foregrounded by the composition and is generally the principal vehicle for melody. Because this is a pop album, we should assume that almost every specifically memorable moment will supposedly come directly from her unless anything to the contrary arises. While Hatchie is a competent vocalist and her voice is mixed reasonably well, there is little about her tone that makes her a particularly memorable singer in and of herself. This would not be a problem if her voice did not have to carry perhaps the most forgettable and rehashed vocal melodies I can (hardly) remember hearing on a pop record of any kind; there’s not a single phrasing here that didn’t make me think of a more striking moment on either Mazzy Star’s She Hangs Brightly
or Nana Kitade’s Violet Blaze
(and, strangely enough, the album in general does feel like a hybrid of the former’s bare-bones shoegaze and the latter’s glossy pop). These undistinctive hooks are not helped by her wider manner as a vocalist; she has little to no sense of inflection, a comfortable but unextraordinary taste in harmony, and a disappointing phobia of catchy rhythms. In fact, I was so accustomed to her total assimilation into the flow of her instrumental section that by the time When I Get Out
came about, the lilting feel of its straight-time pre-chorus seemed so striking that I mistook it for triplets.
All things considered, Hatchie still has what it takes to be a solid dream pop vocalist because dream pop bands are generally strong enough at crafting instrumental atmospheres that the vocalist’s role is more complementary than it is assertive. Take Beach House’s most recent offering, 7
- Victoria Legrand’s vocals are excellent, but if the album had been teased in instrumental form, fans and non-fans alike would have been able to experience enough of its strengths to take an accurate guess at its full potential. I find it unlikely that their highlight tracks would vary significantly between the instrumental and full version, but this is purely hypothetical. On Keepsake
, however, the instrumental foundation feels more like a backing track than an active player in the album’s atmosphere. It falls into the classic pitfall of characterising itself primarily through reverb and is overly happy to jump straight into a Ride-esque wall of sound overlaid with jangly guitar tones that any sense of dynamic variation and consequential atmospheric development gets left in the dirt. I took the time to visit Hatchie’s Soundcloud and glance at the waveform mappings available there; unsurprisingly, the majority of these tracks are so dynamically unvaried that a line of best fit drawn between each of their wave peaks would look virtually horizontal for the most part. While it is upsetting that a series of flat lines feels like an apt encapsulation of this album, its dynamic stagnancy isn’t quite as wearying as its melodic conservatism. These tracks’ melodic sensibilities are so bland that even their minor permutations often fall flat; Obsessed
, for instance, brings in a short guitar solo shortly after the three-minute mark that adds less than nothing to the song beyond a contribution to the tedium of its five-minute plus runtime.
It’s at this point that I have to check myself - ‘bland’ does very much seem to be the word here, yet ‘bland dream pop’ is a long-standing cliché as notorious for its wince-inducing overuse as its occasional pertinence. I’m generally reticent to write atmospherically-driven music off as bland even if its atmosphere passes me by; there’ll often be some redeeming quality I can recognise (if not appreciate) if things are broken down technically. Unfortunately, (working on the principle that blandness is derived primarily from homogeneity), applying a quick homogeneity test to Keepsake
goes as follows: dynamics [check] / melodies & chords [check] / timbre [check] / rhythm [supercheck] / arrangement [check] / song structure [check]. The only category exempt from this test is the wider sense of ‘atmosphere’ as a subjective impression of the other qualities in combination, but at this point it can be asserted that even if a listener does not find the album’s atmosphere to be bland, its individual technical components do virtually nothing to resist that interpretation.
On the bright side, it does mean that anyone enamoured with the songwriting and production in any particular song is quite likely to enjoy the rest of the album. Some might treat this album’s homogeneity as consistency and label it a strength; this is absolutely fair and understandable, but I personally consider it overly sunny-side-up and would prefer not to set the bar for dream pop as low as this album suggests is acceptable.
It is somewhat vindicating that the Keepsake
’s best songs are the ones that break most clearly from its rigid template. Stay With Me
both develop from comparatively sparse hooks into chorus that emerge (rather than immediately appear) through progressions in their arrangement and dynamics. These tracks build and drop off more clearly and convincingly than the rest of the album and benefit hugely from it atmospherically. Stay With Me
in particular is impressive in the way it continually one-ups itself purely through fleshing out the arrangement piece-by-piece; the bones of the song don’t change beyond its first verse and chorus, but each iteration feels more breathtaking than the one before and as the song finally peaks in its final chorus it gives a resounding sense that it has really earned
its momentum. Additionally, while it doesn’t do anything altogether different to the rest of the album, Her Own Heart
is a swoon-inducing airing of dream pop 101. This track actually sounds worse in sequencing because its appealing qualities are camouflaged against the stagnancy of the mediocre tracks either side of it, but it is reassuring to see that Hatchie was able to eke some level of mastery out of her chosen template at one point.
On the whole however, Keepsake
brings me uncomfortably close to what I imagine is the mindset of someone who hates dream pop, which needless to say does not thrill me; I like
dream pop; I want to keep on liking dream pop; I want to like more
dream pop! However, there are a few rules of thumb that take the field here and generally mitigate the dangers of drawing any kind of reasoned assessment from personal preference when it comes to music: if an album is labelled ‘pop’ but you cannot remember any of the vocal hooks at the end of a full listen, something’s off; the former rule applies doubly so if you find yourself think of artists’ vocal hooks instead; if an album is associated with an outdated movement and it feels like an anachronism at its time of release, then there’s it a good chance it might be considered derivative; if a vocalist is placed centre-stage in an arrangement and the result feels lacking, then any combination of the vocalist, the vocal melodies or the arrangement are at fault. This album is not without good qualities, but it makes too many fundamental errors for any of them to be particularly engaging throughout its runtime.
Having framed things in the wider context of 2019 art pop, I feel like some statement about the wider anathema of Keepsake
’s faults is called for, but honestly it would be a red herring to flag up this album’s individual failings in production, composition and performance as demonstrative of some degradation of the style in general (even if many other artists are making those same mistakes). Strangely enough, one of the albums I’ve been enjoying most recently (Blonde Redhead’s Penny Sparkle
) commits virtually every sin Keepsake
might be accused of; it’s stylistically homogenous, more focused on reverb-laden atmosphere than diversity of songwriting, and it borrows greedily from 80s synth and dream pop palettes. None of this has much to do with what makes Penny Sparkle
a good album and Keepsake
a mediocre one; the former is well produced, understands the balance of minimalism and maximalism, and is full of emotional ambivalence. These aren’t necessarily the qualities Hatchie should be looking to improve on, but they would certainly be one of many good places to start. As things stands, she’s mismanaged a promising style and should give her songwriting and production approaches a thorough rethink before attempting a follow-up; she’s by no means a write-off but is clearly far from delivering on the potential of this album’s brightest moments.