Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Aquarius (Tinashe, 2014)

Sometimes you hear a specific song, and you are hooked.

I had heard good things about Tinashe's debut album, and so I added the album to my rotation and promptly forgot about it. Sometime later, I was out food shopping, bored of listening to my usual stuff, when I finally remembered Aquarius and put it on. I distinctly remember wandering through the frozen food section as 'Bet' started, and it just sucked me in.

Head to tail, this album is a genuine surprise. A few songs flirt with dance ('2 On', 'All Hands On Deck') but the overall vibe of the record is dark, slow, and disquieting. I was immediately hooked by how atmospheric it was. There are familiar tropes scattered throughout, but the songs are more haunting and tense.

At the time, I had not heard the Weeknd, Kelela or FKA twigs, so I had no antecedents to compare it to (the closest thing I could think of was James Blake, but without his austere delivery and with a more dynamic, varied sound). Tinashe's sound felt completely different, in the best way possible. I walked home without ever hitting pause or replaying. It was just so engrossing - I have not had an experience with an album like that since... I cannot remember.

Listening to Aquarius is the equivalent to sinking slowly to the bottom of a body of water. Starting with the muted sounds of a party and finger snaps, 'Aquarius' immediately submerges the listener in the slowed-down grooves and dark atmospherics which define Tinashe's aesthetic and tone.

'Bet' (feat. Devonte Hynes) is even better - to use the sinking metaphor, it feels a few feet deeper. Darker in tone, and packed with apocalyptic visuals, it is one of the most effective tracks on the album. Ending with a wailing guitar solo, and processed backing vocals, it is hair-raising stuff.

'Cold Sweat' is a slow jam for people who have partied too hard but are still going through the motions. The tempo feels like RnB, and there is a discernible groove, but the tone and otherworldly synth textures push it to another place. The lyrics are a paranoid look at hook-up culture, with references to 'friends with agendas' and 'eyes on your back'. There is a world-weariness to the words, as though the  narrator is aware of the dangers but is still willing to seek out a new partner, even if he leaves in the morning (which sounds like the best case scenario).

Buffered by an interlude, '2 On' is the first recognisably RnB track, with a faster beat and a guest verse (by Schoolboy Q). It was the big hit off the record and makes for a nice break from the disenchantment and hollow eroticism of the early tracks.

Compared to the (relative) power surge of '2 On', 'How Many Times' (featuring Future) feels like a go-between, marrying 'Cold Sweat's' slow-burn to a catchy chorus. Maybe because of this it is one of my favourite tracks off the album. It is so good that even the spoken word intro (in French) adds to the ambience, rather than detracting from it (it is also the clearest signpost of Janet Jackson's influence on this current trend of dark and slinky RnB ala 'Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)').

Bracketed by another interlude, in which Tinashe briefly interrogates the concept of truth, 'Pretend' (with a guest spot from A$AP Rocky) is one of the most unsettling 'love songs' I have heard in awhile - over a (relatively) upbeat melody, the narrator tries to convince a former paramour to pretend they are in love just for one night. Completely undermining the sentiment of the sonics, the singer highlights their superficiality. The song almost feels like a dare for listeners - are they paying attention to the lyrics, or the beat? it is the ultimate 'last rites' song: She knows this guy's MO, and needs one night where all the cards are on the table they are both on the same page.
'All Hands on Deck' is more straightforward: it is about a woman wronged too many times.  Now she is only out for hook-ups. It's the first song that feels a little outside the singer's grasp - it is catchy, but the synths are so high in the mix her voice blends into the background. There is also a very obtrusive pan flute that feels totally out of place - it sounds like it was added after the fact.

'Indigo Child (Interlude)' is less than two minutes long, but hits all the aesthetic touchstones of the album. concluding in a crash of electronics reminiscent of FKA twigs.

A ballad about a woman running away from love, 'Far Side of the Moon' continues the album's preoccupation with mendacious lovers and the difficulty of figuring out what a person's real motives are. Sonically, the percussion provides a martial beat that adds an edge of aggression to the bitter musings of the lyrics.

Reducing love to the cheapest signifier of erotic pleasure, 'Feels Like Vegas' is either an ode to dance floor romance, or a deeply cynical extension of the previous tracks, with a narrator taking what she can from the only attraction she can be sure of - the lust of men she meets in the 'flashing lights' of the club.

If 'Thug Cry' were placed earlier in the trackless, its central boost might have come off slightly ridiculous - coming on the heels of all the heartbreak and meditation on bad men, instead it feels like a reassertion of personal power, and a confident blow against displays of machismo. Whereas previous songs dealt with the narrator's insecurities about men, this song flips the script to highlight how she is not the only person affected by her relationships - and their weakness is the inability to express their emotions. It's a clever lyric, and the music is one of the most ear wormy tracks on the album. It's great.

I have not really mentioned the interludes, but snippets like 'Deep in the Night (Interlude)' are great buffers between the more traditional pop RnB and uber-slow jams - this one is a creepy, muffled piano concerto that sounds like audio from an old video of a child's recital.

'Bated Breath' is a return to the haunted slow jams of the first half of the record. The synths and piano are well-judged, but I particularly love how it all dies away to let Tinashe's voice carry it. This track really hits home how Tinashe uses space, silence, as part of her aesthetic. She knows how to let a specific atmosphere and pathos breath and build, rather than smothering everything in a lot of production.

In a completely different vein, 'Wildfire' is a great, funky little number that feels like a break from all the conflict and cynicism of the previous songs. Not to say it is more positive lyrically (she equates her lover's magnetism as a poison in her veins), but at least sonically it feels like the narrator has an opportunity to escape her predicament. Coming after so many tracks dealing with deceit and betrayal, it feels like a narrative cliff hanger - is she going to break away, or will she be lured back toward heartbreak? Instead of closure, we get an ellipses. The song ends as it began, on the precipice of her choice. While we contemplate that, 'The Storm (Outro)' ends the album the way it began, with atoms and the tinkle of ivories fading into silence...

I really enjoy Aquarius. It is well-produced, feels sonically and thematically unified, and is extremely well-sequenced. A lot of albums feel like a bunch of tracks thrown together - every song on Aquarius feels like it is in the right place, and feeds into the vibe of the song which follows it. There is a sense of cumulative effect which is very intoxicating.

I don't really have criticisms. The rap verses have become a familiar component of a lot of songs, but they all feel a little out of place here. Even though '2 On', 'Pretend' and 'How Many Times' are conducive backdrops, the traditional party cliches and macho posturing feel a little odd within the context of the album's overall tone and themes. Not that they detract - amid the album's slow-burn, they are reassuring signposts of something familiar.

While the album is filled with great individual songs, Aquarius is best listened to in one go. So if you  are planning on taking a long road trip, it's the ideal aural backdrop.

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