His preferred mode of musical expression often arrives as a distant, weathered echo, but here’s what’s assertively clear about Deptford Goth’s Daniel Woolhouse: He knows his strengths. The self-made U.K. producer has an ear for sad-eyed electro-pop hooks, a knack for synthesizer-driven production flair, and the ability to merge the two, conveniently, in his own living room. It’s all there for the taking on Life After Defo’s opener and first single, “Life After Defo”: layers of gloomy keyboard pads that could have been lifted from some ‘80s melodrama soundtrack or another, sparse, downbeat vocals, and just the right percussive and chipmunk-voiced loops. “Don’t know where you are / Just backgrounds floating”, Woolhouse sings in the chorus. Defo’s strongest track, the song casts an air of melancholy that, while not fully sustained, hints strongly at what’s to come.
Given his thin, boyish vocal stylings and overarching sense of computerized loneliness, Woolhouse, who worked as an elementary school teaching assistant by day while recording Life After Defo, is certain to draw comparisons to fellow Londoner James Blake. (Indeed, he already has—among others, Pitchfork’s Laura Snapes compared highlight “Bronze Age”, with its kaleidoscope array of vocal loops forming a backdrop for Woolhouse’s lead melody, to “a weepy James Blake leading a chain gang.”) But the parallel lies more in the voice and the vulnerable spirit of the project than in the sonic materials Woolhouse uses to get there. Defo bears little mark of the post-dubstep rhythms and lurches that has made Blake a favorite with critics and electronica types, nor the dramatic buildups that make tracks like “The Wilhelm Scream” and “Digital Lion” such steady triumphs. Woolhouse, by contrast, is far more content to identify an earwormy refrain—the quietly hopeful “Love will grow / Love will explode / We can’t die, can’t die” chorus of “Objects Objects”, or the suddenly speedy vocal repetitions that make “Particles” a patient grower—and return to it between weepy verses, subtly adding keyboard layers or percussive elements before fading out around the four-minute mark.
With tasteful winks to ‘80s synth-pop balladry, Deptford Goth’s toolbox could, then, be likened to electro-pop contemporaries Tanlines or Lemonade (whose Diver LP is pretty much what Woolhouse would sound like if he found likeminded collaborators and enjoyed partying a little bit more), especially on relative tempo bursts “Deepest” and “Union”, the artist’s second single. It’s simple, formulaic stuff, but effective, and the basic hallmarks are there: the generous synth pads, the busy, clattering drum loops, the melodic, high-pitched keyboard lines (particularly on “Bronze Age” and “Feel Real”). But Life After Defo is relentlessly dour and somewhat limiting in its loneliness.
Chalk it up to Woolhouse’s personal identification as a blues singer. “There’s a broad influence of sounds on the record”, he told The Guardian, “but probably at the heart of every song there is a little old blues singer with a guitar.” It’s a nod to Life After Defo’s mopey interior, but it’s ironic, then, that the album contains no guitar or any discernible live instrumentation, for that matter. Despite the work of engineer Rodaidh McDonald (who’s worked with the similarly spirited How To Dress Well), Deptford Goth sounds a bit trapped in his own head, starved for collaborators to challenge him out of his neatly shaped comfort zone.
Not that Woolhouse’s head isn’t an alluring place to be. But with so little variation, Defo’s 40 minutes can grow tiresome, and by the time you get to dreary numbers like “Years” and “Deepest”, it’s hard to tell if the album is intensely front-loaded (surely the first three tracks are among its best) or if it’s just that Woolhouse’s formula grows tedious like any other.
Probably a bit of both, which offers reminder that Life After Defo is a debut album. It’s a promising one, at that.