Review Summary: Skittering, sliding, fumbling for your keys, touching the walls to steady yourself
I didn't realise why UK artist Lapsley sounded so familiar, until discovering she used to spend weekends in London's Gqom clubs, soaking up the minimal KwaZulu-Natal vibe. Indeed, half of Cautionary Tales of Youth
was recorded in Cape Town where Lapsley was forced to wait out lockdown after taking a trip to Mzansi. There's multiple Afrobeat touches, mixed with typical South African cocktail house, UK garage, 80's smoothness, universal indie pop, and the binding softness of a singer-songwriter touch. One could be forgiven for thinking there's not much difference between this and other midnight bedroom pop acts, but under the subdued vibe there's a rhythmic ripple running through the record that belies the dreamy facade.
By focusing and showcasing the beat a bit more like a dry martini, Lapsley has discovered a new gear. In the gorgeous dance ballad 'Close to Heaven' Lapsley works in her smoky, standard register and then kicks into an ascending column of sure gossamer clarity; the melody is strong but also symbiotic. Collaborator Msaki finds the grounded space in the last third, as if talking to the sky. There is an unhurried confidence in the arrangement and form of the song that sets the stage for the rest of the album.
'Nightingale' marks Lapsley's first use of live drums. The song even feels like a bit of a discovery; the underlying little synth swirls sound like someone curling their wrist and hand to check movement after the removal of a cast. I read the ending as intimately big; a paper fan flicked out and fluttering with dexterous control. Lapsley continues her run of great openers with album standout '32 floors'. Big chords on the opening, castanets, and a wide-eyed pop hook that sounds like falling in slow motion into an emperor sized bed. The breathless wonder continues with the metaphorically consistent 'Hotel Corridors', possibly one of the sweetest dubstep adjacent songs I've heard. 'Dial 27', referencing the South African dialling code, is just a playful steady bop for an intercontinental weekend fling.
Thematically the record isn't breaking any new ground - it's essentially charting the course of a relationship from excitedly cannonballing into love to looking for a final, more lasting judgement call. It does it successfully though - capturing the messiness and exhilaration in the first half, and the melancholy of being so close but not close enough. Lapsley makes the case that it's not all about the mysterious infiltration of nightlife and glamour; it may be just be about finding someone who admits you're their favourite person. But she makes immersion in the glowing midnight world sound like a great way of passing the time until that you discover that, and she also leaves us feeling like it's worth the pursuit.