Last week Stereolab darling Lætitia Sadier dished out her third solo slice of art-pop (post-rock? avant garde electronic?) with latest album Something Shines. With those unmistakably lackadaisical vocals, it’s nigh on impossible to listen to Sadier’s new work without constantly looping back the experience of her more well-known Stereolab output. Stereolab brainstorm, go! Inescapable vintage keyboards, weirdly intonated English, inexplicable changes of direction mid-song, ‘just as you were getting into it’.
Integral as these kooky elements were to Stereolab’s sound, and as much as we’d miss them if they were never there, I feel now, in 2014, they should be handled with caution, to avoid risk of that nineties bubble bursting and covering us all in bubblegum. So at 46, is Sadier’s voice still in the throes of a messy divorce with the Stereolab sound, or has she consciously uncoupled herself and started afresh?
Dun dun dunnn, better keep reading.
The album commences with the tried and tested Stereolab juxtaposition of a celestial phenomenon and common foodstuff, a track named ‘Quantum Soup’ (I’ll leave you cool kids to work that one out). Here Sadier shows herself to be a master at work crafting an album opener; not much happens, but we’re allowed to settle into the lazy bass, the muted trumpet and, yes, the vintage keyboard. To frolic and splash about in the quantum soup, as it were, and very enjoyable it is too.
It means that when the 2nd track starts, you can’t help but nod your head and creepily murmur ‘Mmm nice, now we’re off’. Though we should give track 2 itself, ‘Then, I Will Love You Again’, some credit for that feeling, with its drama and urgency, its building brass, its climactic key changes; it’s a captivating pop song.
As we get into the full swing of the album, what’s striking is Sadier’s continued ability to swirl her music into technicolour surrealist landscapes. And listening to her do so is just plain fun. In ‘The Milk of Human Tenderness’, you are a candyfloss lamb skipping through a moon meadow. I kid you not. In ‘The Scene of The Lie’, the snooping bass, furtive hi-hat and mischievous organ send you scurrying down shady alleyways in a comic book heist, with a Gainsbourgy showdown. At the time of writing I had consumed nothing more than a strong cup of PG Tips; Sadier alone is to thank for my Tuesday trip to Wonderland.
Adding to the topsy turvy feel is the schizophrenia which pervades the song structure of most tracks on the album. Oh, fancy seeing you here Stereolab Lætitia… again. Sometimes, it works. The tempo jump from the ballad-esque first half of ‘Butter Side Up’ to a frenetic middle minute is just about sustained by the retained 6/8 time, and Sadier’s formal intentions become (a bit) more apparent when the tempo gets sleepy again at the song’s close.
The pleasant dizziness this brings about sometimes comes dangerously close to full-blown vertigo though, especially in ‘Echo Port’, where the burst of harpsichord at 2.32 leaves me feeling completely lost at sea – albeit on a pirate ship, so not all bad.
Structural whiplash aside, all in all Sadier does a sterling job of making you remember everything about Stereolab that was great – the escapism, the retro chic, and in ‘Oscuridad’ even the loosely Marxist lyrical sentiments. All the while, she injects a maturity which I often felt was missing from her earlier projects. The odd unnerving chord change, the added instrumental dimensions, the strange bending of pace and dynamics, all point to something actually a little unsavoury beneath the sugary sweet.
So no, not a clean divorce, but rather a haunting complication of old ties, a productive crisis, and a quietly impressive piece of music.