A Record Is Not Just a Record
Allo Darlin’s name might seem sickly cute. Their first LP (self-titled, 2010) and preceding singles might have garnered attention for their spunky cleverness and charmingly cheeky moments, on love songs that played on pop-culture touchpoints; songs like “Henry Rollins Don’t Dance” or “Woody Allen”, where she imagined and un-imagined a relationship as an Allen or Ingmar Bergman film. What made Allo Darliin’ special, though, was something more. Even in the lightest and cutest moments, Elizabeth Morris’ singing and songs had a vulnerability about them that felt both genuine and familiar, and an impression of openness that was disarming and made her feel like someone you knew or could know. Even the most treacly sentiment, like a recipe for chili needing two hearts to make it, came off as extraordinarily tender and sweet. The album was the perfect evidence that so-called “twee” indie-pop music, sometimes easily dismissed as un-serious if you’re listening just on the surface, can have real gravity to it. Allo Darlin’s debut had real weight in the songs, even when they seemed flighty and just-for-fun.
The more downcast follow-up Europe puts that bittersweet feeling, her way of writing light yet weighty songs, at the forefront. Morris and band point her wit and charm in a more serious direction, erasing the most “cute” level of their music, without taking any of the attractive, immediate pop qualities with it. If anything, those elements are developed even further, so the music and lyrics carry the same feelings in a way that feels natural and sounds more muscular and deep than you might expect.
Lyrically, the album is driven by a feeling of uncertainty. “Europe” embodies that, pairing uncertainty about the narrator’s personal life with her worries about where the continent is headed. She sounds breathless as she hopes for love amid a general picture of who-knows. The strings in the song are both soothing and sad (while also making the song remind me of Ballboy’s much different but perhaps thematically related song “A Europewide Search for Love”). Morris poignantly sings, “I’ve been here for days / and I’ve never felt so poor / and I don’t know what I’m looking for”.
The way we relate to each other on a personal and a geographic level is in that song and on the LP as a whole. What feel like personal-experience songs speak to our global cultural moment in a lot of ways. They speak to the sense that people are continually spreading out, geographically, moving away and taking friendships with them. And how our sense of home gets more slippery. They speak to the media/pop culture tidal wave we live in, and how it might lessen our connection to solid things. The idea that we’re all “floating” is embodied by Neil Armstrong, who literally floated in space, in the first song. We’re travelling, too, or at least the characters in the songs are; going from Australia to New York to England and onward. And, of course, the people in these songs are perpetually leaving each other behind, and then wondering about each other.
Morris is good at singing especially forward sentiments in a lonely voice – something like “you turn my world on its axis / every time I look in your eyes”, a lyric that even in its romance continues the album’s portrait of motion and isolation. In the process of expressing feelings of disconnection and confusion, she tends to sing things that, while not brand-new in sentiment, feel like concise wordings of the kind of heartbreaking thoughts we tend to have when we’re feeling lost or blue and looking for something to strive for or hold on—like, “this is the year we’ll make it right” or “I cannot explain why I haven’t been feeling myself”. It might be moments like that – the way she sings a line like that, the way the band plays while she does – which make Allo Darlin’ feel to me like a truly special band, even when they’re not doing anything that’s going to scream “special” to listeners who are only looking to hear something they’ve absolutely never heard before.
Allo Darlin’ does sound at times like bands I’ve heard before, but they’re bands I loved, that I held and still hold dear – the Lucksmiths, Camera Obscura, Jonathan Richman, Bruce Springsteen, Belle & Sebastian – which only makes them more special to me, especially since these hints of other bands are just hints, wisps that evoke other favorites of mine, hovering in the air around a band already doing a lot to make them join those ranks. Allo Darlin’ and Europe indeed do have what it takes to be a band and album that mean so much to the particular people to whom they mean so much to. That might sound like a sentence that cancels itself out, but it isn’t. The best bands of our time are only the best bands in our heads, at least until we meet other people and discover they feel the same way. On Europe I hear Allo Darlin’ becoming a new favorite band of our time, not for everybody (that isn’t possible now, if it ever was), but for some of us.
How much songs can mean to us, how they are the fabric of our lives, is a constant theme of Allo Darlin’s music. The band which, last album, defended Graceland and sang a piece of a favorite Weezer lyric this time seems to always have music somewhere in their brains, be it the Silver Jews, Toots & the Maytals or terrible songs playing on the radio or at a club. As with much of my favorite music, they’re not afraid to work their music fandom into their music itself, in specific terms. (That’s not always a popular tactic. In my experience critics seem to prefer bands who imitate their favorite bands over bands who mention them by name during their songs.) The people in these songs remember moments by relating them to what songs were on the radio at the time, or to which famous pop star had just died. Don’t we all do this? To me it’s another way in which this music feels special in a serious way – special like a best friend, not like a cool trend you fall for momentarily and then are embarrassed by the next summer.
When a song on Europe gets especially melancholy, it usually involves listening to music that helps spur memories. On “Some People Say”, Morris longs for someone who’s away and wonders if they’d feel the same as she does when they listen to the songs she’s listening to. At the end of the album, on “My Sweet Friend”, she recounts her love’s sentimental attachment to records (“a record is not just a record / a record can hold memories”) while also expressing her own loneliness in those same terms (“all these records sound the same to me / and I’m full up with memory”). It’s one last touching moment on an album riddled with them. We leave our protagonist lonely and sad, not even fulfilled by music, while gorgeous music surrounds her.
The most stirring music references come while Morris sings alone over a ukulele on “Tallulah”. She sings of people and places gone, and keeps pairing them with musical memories, like the time her and a companion scanned the car radio looking for something worthwhile and then realized they had “the tape with Tallulah on it”, which I take as a reference to the Go-Betweens’ great album Tallulah, though it could as well be a reference to Tallulah Gosh or some other band with Tallulah in the name that meant something to somebody. Memories of records from the past are really as much about people and places and feelings, and this song and band know it. They’re about how we felt, how we wished we felt, how we imagine we might have felt or how we feel now about how we felt then. In the song, Morris wonders, at the same time, whether she’s “already heard all the songs that’ll mean something” and whether she’s “already met all the people that’ll mean something.” Of course, neither is true, for her or for us, though it’s easy to wonder both sometimes, especially these days.