Review Summary: Most improved artist of the year?
The premise behind PC Music longtimer Hannah Diamond is that three dimensions' worth of content will sound all the more evocative compressed into two dimensions' worth of depth. Never mind that this is the literal pitch for "Poster Girl", a sparkly banger on which Diamond contemplates whether she might escape her real-life real-girl insecurities transformed into a pin-up (spoiler alert, it's embracing your flaws that makes you you
!) – this impression of concerted shallowness is written into the way she and her iconoclastic label have treated their aesthetic from the start, from ultra-synthetic production stylings throttled into reverb-starved tones to wilfully bland delivery of humdrum subject matter and vocals pitch-shifted to the tune of a particularly blasé android.
Now, I've had a lot
to say elsewhere about the inanimate, mechanical or digitally modulated treatment of lyrics that resonate a thousand times more cogently for how their impersonal feints force you to pin down the humanity in them. A respectable fraction of my favourite music draws heavily from these techniques, all of which pre-date and will survive PC Music, and yet, as on 2019's witheringly dull Reflections
, Hannah Diamond simply lacks the personality that vocalists like Sarah Bonito, Neggy Gemmy or even Yeule have brought to their own deadpan outings. Her listless manner verges so insistently on a spoken word daydream that it could easily be mistaken for outright indifference, and any air of frankness that this adds to her tone is repeatedly undermined by her tendency towards semi-ironic self-awareness (another PC Music classic).
We hear this clearly on "Want You to Know", a superficially perky cut on which Diamond laments the lack of open communication in an early-stage relationship. Identity / the image that you have of me / complexity / so far from what's inside
, she muses – one picks up a certain amount of earnest frustration at being over-considered and under-understood here, yet her willingness to trivialise the contours of her own personality brushes so uneasily against self-deprecation that any sense of candour goes up in smoke. This pattern repeats itself perniciously: for all the pathos of "Staring at the Ceiling"'s opening verse, it's impossible to take the repetitious title-lyric without a dig at the banality of its own setting; "Impossible"'s projection of loneliness and romance over a high-res photo is so facile that Diamond's metaphors land like in-jokes (the figurative edge of Lost within the pixels of you / I'm zoomed in too much
is haplessly blunted alongside the likes of I touch my touch pad, but you don't touch me
); I cannot imagine a romcom brave or stupid enough to incorporate the sappy mathematical shitchat at the heart "Divisible by Two", but I would pay good money to see professional actors debase themselves with those lines. Unsurprisingly, the cumulative effect across the record is a mixture of drab facetious humour and doll-like self-simplification, each twice as mawkish for the other.
For those well-acquainted with Diamond, neither these criticisms nor the tendencies they highlight will come as much surprise. She remains one of the most unappealing performers in the pop landscape, and this record does little to remedy this – or should that be a little
? Perfect Picture
's silver lining comes in that it is, at the end of the day, a perfectly serviceable pop record replete with euphoric headrushes and the occasional tenacious earworm ("Impossible"). Producer David Gamson (Charli XCX, Ke$ha, Jessie J) takes a near-opposite strategy to that of A.G. Cook on Reflections
, playing against the languid qualities of Diamond's voice with a vibrant set of pop tracks rather than pandering to their most brittle qualities. He faithfully embraces PC Music's cling-wrap aesthetic of short-release/short-sustain synth plucks, look-at-me! fingersnaps and tightly compressed bass, but chases these with a generous measures of warmth and energy, courtesy of a few well-placed '80s-isms in his percussion tones that bring a welcome sense of reverberation and resonance to an otherwise plastic palette (easily recognised on "Flashback" or "What You to Know"). "Affirmations" embraces this full-tilt, chasing them with exactly the kind of spiralling arpeggios that originally trademarked PC Music's euphoria rush. This track wears bubblegum to perfection, and Diamond's voice is pitch-shifted so kinetically over the tailend of its chorus that she hardly gets a chance to detract from it with her natural tones.
As small triumphs go, this song and the infectious "Twisted" are worthy highlights, but I'm far from convinced they make Diamond's struggle to carry a full record any less of a dealbreaker – these songs may boast strong production, but their conventional writing forces her to assume the mantle of a conventional pop vocalist, to which she is almost uniquely ill-suited. Perfect Picture
lacks the eclectic flourish that supported PC Music's headiest odysseys of bad-taste-gone-good (one immediately thinks of SOPHIE, or even some of Diamond's early singles "Pink and Blue" or "Hi"). Somewhat similar to label-affiliate Caroline Polachek's latest record Desire, I Want to Turn Into You
, it tries to play pop maximalism on anyone's
terms, squandering the artist's idiosyncrasies on formulae that ultimately leave them looking uncomfortably disposable – a shame, given that the future is somewhat blurry for Diamond at this points. PC Music shuts its doors to new music from next year, and it remains to be seen whether her music career will survive it.