Lead Review: Tristan Bath On Jessy Lanza's Oh No
, May 5th, 2016 15:09
Tristan Bath looks into the sparsely populated world of Jessy Lanza's Oh No, finding a record that manages to be insular without narcissism, that nods to history without being consumed by it, and that's swathed in the light of pop without bowing to its darker contemporary failings
The institution of pop music is in a strange place right now. By its very definition the genre seeks populist appeal, and so it's perhaps no surprise that the simmering underbelly of social decay slowly eroding away millennial culture has twisted pop over the last decade, whisking it from a love-and-fun obsessed playground into a darkened club boasting cheap deals on vodka Red Bulls. For all the merits of modern pop’s ability to assimilate musical invention, and to blaze new trails in production, the soul is slowly vanishing; often reducing beats and hooks to tools for exploring little beyond weekend-worship and bacchanal escapism. Even when there are grander themes such as gender or race politics at stake, the ersatz sheen of a branding campaign is perceptible.
Running in parallel to this, pop's listenership has long since splintered, with the most popular singles in the world becoming an utter mystery to anybody above the age of 12. (Seriously, how many of us really know who the fuck Lukas Graham is?) Meanwhile the albums are expansive ensemble projects with the lead singer at the helm, more like a Robert Wilson opera than an album and every bit as overblown and extroverted in their self-aggrandisement. With this in mind, the re-emergence of an artist like Jessy Lanza, who is dealing in pure and minimal electronic pop aesthetics as a means of introspection, is more alluring now than ever.
Lanza's debut on Hyperdub, Pull My Hair Back, came out back in 2013, adding another string to the label’s bow in the process; the record had been slowly coming together over the course of a few years, with some guidance and production from Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys. Backed up by sparse stabs of sparing, old school drum programming and some more forgiving waves of dreamy pads, Lanza’s voice was often doubletracked or echoed as she led the way through a night of partying with a cast of characters every bit as cool and confident as the figure of the pre-code starlet that Lanza herself channeled on the album artwork. The record wound up a seductive opus of woozy nocturnal emotions, only topped on that front by labelmate Cooly G’s Wait Til' Night released a year later. This almost-mystical image of the pop vocalist seemed fermented by Lanza's breathy contribution to Caribou's stunning dream sequence 'Second Chance' in 2015 (“My love's for ya / Boy you know that it's all for real”).
As suggested by its panick-stricken title though, Oh No sees a thematic shift in Lanza’s persona: The production process this time around is a far more closed off and cohesive affair, completed entirely by Lanza and Greenspan in their own studio back in Hamilton, Ontario (home town to both, as well as, incidentally, Caribou’s Dan Snaith). On the cover she crouches surrounded by the pot plants that purportedly fill her home, daylight barely making its way through the windows behind, a glittery cloak over her head and body, face resting in her hands, mired in lonely absorption.
What this sense of apparent introversion leads to, however, is anything but a soft or slow record. On the contrary; Oh No often grooves harder and faster than Pull My Hair Back, with Lanza’s voice still invoking early Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. Lanza more directly cites the Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “philosophy of experimental pop” as looming large over the production of Oh No, and from the get-go the simpler textures of their early electronics define proceedings. Opener 'New Ogi' could barely be less fussy; practically the archetypal electronic pop song. An arpeggiated synth bleeps around through a slowly opening and closing envelope, a pad dabs colour into the background, a stodgy synth chord sits on the first beat of every bar, the first and third notes of every bar are dotted by drum machine, and Lanza sings her wonderful hooks: “Baby you already know / Just look in my eyes and you’ll see it”.
The raw post-disco stomp of 'Never Enough' is directly descended from YMO's most streamlined early-80s grooves, replete with the raw bounce of synth bass. Lanza's vocals sketch out another set of repetitive and simplistic melodies, but they weave their way around the core, running circles around the listener, heading toward synth pop transcendence within the four-and-a-half minute time frame. Intensely spacious and wintery 808 ballad 'I Talk BB' follows, with Lanza turning in her most fragile vocal to date inside a dizzying echo chamber. The minimalist aesthetic of the instrumentation gets particularly strong here; musically speaking there's practically a gigantic billboard directing us towards a lush line of melody or some swooping string break after each chorus. Lanza, however, does little more than layer on a few handclaps. And if anything it's all the more emotionally direct for it.
Despite the vintage cred of those hard synth and post-disco grooves, there's plenty of discernible 21st century influences littered across Oh No. 'It Means I Love You' — the first single released from the record — rides a lumpen kick drum, while Lanza’s pitched-up vocals seem to replicate a typical footwork vocal sample. The tune ultimately erupts into a quivering set of jutting, up-tempo samples that hover between the insanity of South African Shangaan Electro and the juke and footwork only a few hundred miles away from Hamilton in Chicago and Detroit. The tinkling hi-hats and synth jabs of second single 'VV Violence' and the banging title track further resemble early house, with the former bringing out some nervous, idiosyncratic vocal ticks around the repeated refrain. The hibernal, lonesome feeling comes to a head in the closing half, with 'Begins' ironically ending the album — a sustained moment of arpeggiated stasis, barely crowning into its chorus, where the lushness could have been hugely amplified. Yet again though, there is a peculiar potency in the act of restraint.
What distinguishes Jessy Lanza as a songwriter is this ability to craft deeper meaning without the furnishing of symbols, and little in the way of direct references to the outside world - save pop’s one eternally out-of-reach totem, ‘baby’ – all the while never sacrificing boogieability. The no frills content of the songs signposts a direct path to the artist’s soul, and Lanza’s total and utter presence throughout the record is just undeniable. She’s the prototypical 21st century singer-songwriter: synthetic yet pure.
If Pull My Hair Back was a soaring fantasy starring Lanza as the electronic pop idol, Oh No is set in a place much closer to reality. It's the sound of an artist working alone with their gear in near isolation, in the studio which Lanza has described as being little more than “a couple of closets”. The retreat into sparsity and isolation has left little space for a lush, drifting anthem like Pull My Hair’s 'Keep Moving' or the deeply soulful, cushioned space of 'Strange Emotion', and replaced it with something harshly intimate and honest.
Supplanting giddy joy for a far less obvious set of nervous emotions is a bold choice, though one gets the impression Lanza’s simply working on impulse. She’s doing little in the way of planning out an exhaustively devised career path or persona. Concocting music and image by committee is a tradition dating back decades, from Motown to Sinatra, but recently the authenticity of the ensemble project album has been (often very stupidly) called into question. Katy B’s recently dropped Honey credits over 20 songwriters, while Beyoncé’s Lemonade boasts over 70. The latter even spawned some level of debate online, with the standard parties either defending the genius of Bey as an auteur, or attacking her cred as a ‘manufactured’ musician. The truth is that the methodology and process behind pop music is as much a part of it as anything, and thus is indeed audible. However neither procedure is better or more "authentic" - but the sense of isolation and nervousness in Oh No is certainly all the more formidable as a result of Jessy Lanza’s pared-down ways of working. There’s a parallel to be drawn with those early Prince records that were made almost entirely unassisted by the man, and wound up imbued with a hitherto unparalleled directness.
While there's definitely an alternate universe — where the groovier Oh No tunes like 'It Means I Love You' or 'Never Enough' are globe-conquering hit singles — the album jars with mainstream pop sensibilities. Far from those in-vogue themes of empowerment and tackling society's wider ills, Lanza's busy dealing with herself and a lingering sense of inadequacy. 'VV Violence' directly addresses a fear of being ignored (“I'm working all day long / For the love I never see / Yeah, I say it to your face, but it doesn't mean a thing”), but like on the rest of the album, Lanza solves the problem with the joy of beautiful pop music.