, February 12th, 2013 08:48
Emerging without due fanfare last month, Dawn Richard's GoldenHeart has already set the bar very high for pop this year. It's her second solo album proper, following her 2005 debut Been A While, but she's been in the limelight more recently as a member of Danity Kane, the girl group created on MTV reality show Making The Band and signed to Sean 'Diddy' Combs' Bad Boy Records label. When they split in 2009, she stayed with the mogul to take a place in his collective Diddy-Dirty Money, before leaving in 2010 to dedicate time to her solo material, for which she clearly has a singular vision: GoldenHeart has been released through her own label, and worked on almost entirely with producer Andrew "Druski" Scott, eschewing the wide cast of collaborators that frequently crop up on R&B albums to make for something markedly individual.
First off, GoldenHeart is an epic proposition, both in scope and lyrics. Its 16 tracks top an hour, with 'interlude' songs within that break the record into two movements. Beyond that, it's the first in a planned trilogy of albums, with its follow-ups already named as BlackHeart and RedemptionHeart. Then there's the theme: the landscape the album inhabits is almost pure fantasy, taking in knights, white horses, mountains, nations in revolt and even spaceships. Where lesser artists would have fallen down a hobbit hole following such untrodden pathways however, Richard succeeds, through sheer force of conviction and straight-up great songwriting.
Apparent from the off is the breadth of her approach. Within the first 45 seconds of opener 'In The Hearts Tonight (Intro)', staccato strings, timpani rolls, a solo flute, tremulous strings and a ringing harpsichord line have coalesced, and this is all before Richard has corralled an army of self-harmonising voices. This kind of maximalist production could verge on being overwhelming, but Richard and Druski are clearly teeming with ideas; instead, this is deft artistry pulled off with immaculate skill.
Next up is 'Return Of A Queen', an anthemic pop cut and possibly the album's best moment. Above the opening choral repeats and a killer sequencer line - combining to make the track feel bigger than its four-and-a-half minutes - Richard's voice shows its greatness. Like Bat For Lashes' Natasha Khan, another pop-meets-fantasy exponent, Richard seeks out aerial, unexpected vocal lines: the song's moment of pre-chorus melisma is a perfectly-formed melody, prefacing breathless chorus chants.
Crucially, the album has the kind of depth that rules out single-track highlights, and a collective grace that improves with every listen, frequently stemming from buried sonic earworms: the handclaps and submerged drum loop at the start of 'Gleaux' give way to an earth-shaking half-time tremor and distant chamber strings, showing off the care and attention given to GoldenHeart's arrangement and composition.
What's also striking is that Richard co-opts some of the genres that pop has been taking notes on recently - namely dance and dubstep - and makes them work successfully within her songs. 'Riot' begins with a mellifluous, foregrounded piano, suggesting it may be the album's 'Halo'; instead, by the time we've reached the chorus, scattershot drums haul in the stuttering, effected vocal, and it's a techno banger. 'Pretty Wicked Things', equally, waits until halfway through before strobing bass and pitch-shifted vocals mass up, but rather than feeling like a cheap, demographic-ticking appropriation, these segments are worked in with finesse, sounding as though they've earned their place.
But it's not just contemporary music that Richard nods to: the choppy descending chorus line of 'Northern Lights', which calls to mind Fever Ray's sheeny synth-pop, is prefaced by an eerie music box loop that wouldn't be entirely out of place on Genesis' Nursery Cryme. But wait, come back - there isn't a hint of wince-inducing proggishness here. Rather it forms a core above which the song builds magnificently, returning again at the end, only to slowly devolve in the segue into the next track.
There's a definitely lyrical arc that runs throughout the entire album, too, which comes into sharper resolution on close repeat listens. 'In The Hearts Tonight' traces the first rushes of love, with Richard hailing her "champion" over the echo of a Phil Collins lyric (which comes across better than that sounds), though by halfway through this has pivoted, and Richard has become her own champion on 'Tug Of War'. By the time we reach the final song, the title track, the relationship is glanced in wistful retrospect, played out over Debussy. A simple narrative, maybe, but one that makes the album even more compelling.
What we're left with is a pop album of vast proportions, an hour-plus statement of grand intent. Not only has Richard deftly borrowed from the frequent source genres of a lot of recent pop, but she's firmly carved out a space for herself in R&B's crowded cast. GoldenHeart is both the first instalment in what could well be a phenomenal trilogy of albums and a complete work in itself. It's ambitious, personal, unusual and, crucially, touched with brilliance.