Review Summary: An enjoyable slice of retro-pop.
After achieving a mainstream breakthrough late in 2014 with her self-titled EP, and then following that up with the moderate success of her major label debut Kicker
, Zella Day basically vanished. Sure, she released sporadic singles and performed alongside the likes of Weyes Blood and Lana Del Rey in support of the latter’s 2019 Norman ***ing Rockwell!
tour, but to her fanbase, it felt like she failed to capitalize on the momentum of previous hits like “Hypnotic” and “East of Eden”. Some of the issues were promotional – for instance, hit-in-the-waiting ‘Ace of Hearts’ was eschewed in favor of ‘High’ and ‘Mustang Kids’ for release as a single. After Kicker
received a lukewarm critical reception, Day was dropped from her Hollywood label. To say it’s been a tumultuous five years for the once budding star would be a fair assessment; but to her credit, she’s bounced back strongly with her 2020 EP Where Does the Devil Hide
. If most people have forgotten about Zella Day after a quiet half decade, then this could be a gentle reminder that she has one of the best voices in the indie-pop scene.
Day’s past works always seemed to toe the line between 1960s protest music and modern dream pop, and she did her part to enhance that image by adorning herself with earth tone dresses and flowery headbands. Where Does the Devil Hide
is still very much a throwback, but now it feels like she’s stepped into the 80s. From the style of the artwork to the disco-gaze atmosphere, it’s a lively and danceable affair, albeit still very much rooted in the sort of longing, mesmerizing choruses that have characterized her entire career. ‘My Game’ is the best barometer of what to expect here; it’s a synth-bound melody with a four-on-the-floor rhythm where Day’s vocals go full retro. As a whole, it’s nearly impossible not to sway, tap, or dance to. It’s a style that’s similarly employed on ‘Purple Haze’, only as more of a spacey mid-tempo pop song – it swirls within a realm of pattering drums, echoing guitar chords, and wailing synths that are mildly disorienting but highly contagious. This sleek, pulsing style could open up new avenues for her music, as she seems to have the energy and vocal style to make this whole 80s disco thing work.
Elewhere, ‘Only A Dream’ contains her biggest melodic hook since ‘Ace of Hearts’ (and ‘Hypnotic’ before that), with a lovelorn chorus that is impossible to forget: “I don't care if it was only a dream / Because it's better than being alone.” This is the sort of track that Day, or deft label rep, would benefit from releasing as a single: it’s got the vocal delivery, the simple-yet-relatable lyrics, and the earworm melody to attach itself to the airwaves and never let go. The bookends – ‘People Are Strangers’ and ‘Benny My Dear’ – are folksier ballads that demonstrate her songwriting chops and highlight her voice. They’re not songs that will elevate her level of fame, but they are definitely appreciated as demonstrations of character and the occasional lyrical gold nugget (in particular, the line “Don't be surprised by the love you deserve” feels like an empowering adage). At the conclusion of this five song EP, listeners are left with nary a weak track. In that way, it’s more reminiscent of her 2014 self-titled Zella Day
EP than it is of her good but highly uneven 2015 LP Kicker
. That’s improvement worth noting as she makes her way into a new decade with a fresh look and sound.
Zella Day’s future prospects are looking bright. After supporting Lana Del Rey on tour last year, she’s managed to keep her name and brand within the general public’s purview. Now, she’s dropped an EP that goes toe-to-toe with her best work from 2015 and prior. ‘Only A Dream’ might be as close as she comes on this particular album to releasing a “hit”, but her consistency and newfound aesthetic are both on point. If this is a direction that Zella Day plans to continue exploring, we could all be in for an incredible follow-up LP in the near future. Even if that’s not the case, Where Does the Devil Hide
is an enjoyable slice of retro-pop for the here and now.