The sound of the 1980s has so heavily permeated contemporary music that it seems nearly everyone is trying it on for size, regardless of whether or not it stylistically makes sense with anything they’ve done prior. This current wave of musical nostalgia for the day-glo decade is a bit puzzling with how reviled it was as a whole up until just a few years ago. While certainly not all bad, much of that decade’s music suffered largely due to advances in recording technology as more and more synthesizers replaced actual instruments and, in the process, the production became thinner and more plastic sounding. Reconciling this plasticity with a more organic feel seems to be the aim of contemporary artists looking to replicate their favorite elements of the ‘80s, regardless of whether or not it’s overall a worthwhile pursuit.
Pop tunesmith Devon Williams finds himself in this boat with his latest release and second for the revitalized Slumberland, the appropriately titled Gilding the Lily. Already a well-established and respected songwriter, Williams here forgoes any sense of personal identity in favor of genre exercises that, while often spot-on and pleasant enough to listen to in the moment, get lost in the shuffle of the dozens of artists currently aiming to replicate a decade in which a vast majority of them were not even born. Instead the focus seems to be more on crafting note-perfect pop pastiches featuring his favorite sounds and styles from the ‘80s, trying each on for size generally for little more than the length of a single, deciding the fit isn’t quite right and moving on to the next.
Because of this approach, the album plays more like a mixtape than a cohesive whole that displays a talented artist’s growth and development, something one would expect given the fact Williams and associate Jorge Elbrecht (Lansing-Dreiden, Violens, Ariel Pink) spent two years working on Gilding the Lily. Instead it seems they spent their time holed up in their record collections, seeking to replicate the sound of New Romantic bands, the Smiths, the Church, and any number of power pop groups hell bent on crafting an ideal earworm. In the process of chasing these muses, however, Williams seems to have lost himself and the identity he created over the course of 2008’s stellar Carefree and its 2011 follow-up, Euphoria.
Williams is undoubtedly talented and has not only a way with words that tends to put him just ahead of his peers, but also an exceptional ear for both melody and hooks, here crafting a series of pleasant, if not entirely memorable, pop confections. Opening track “Deep in the Back of My Mind” is a note-perfect recreation of the 1980s in a manner befitting the most meticulous period piece, perfecting encapsulating the style, tone and instrumentation of that era’s best sophisti-pop. By “Pendulum”, the album’s fourth track, Williams has gone full-on Smiths, doing his best Morrissey impression while surrounded by layered guitars aping Johnny Marr’s iconic sound and sonic approach to song construction. While these would be enough to cause some listeners to do a double take wondering if they’re hearing a lost Smtihs song, Williams goes so far as to create bass and drum tones that perfectly replicate the sounds of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. A neat trick, to be sure, but not necessarily the most cohesive way to go about constructing anything beyond an homage.
Throughout, Gilding the Lily is a bit too sonically all over the map, never really settling in on one style and, in the process, losing any sort of distinct voice Williams might have once possessed. Because of this, the title seems to come across a bit tongue in cheek and perhaps a bit more self-aware than we would be lead to believe with Williams perhaps fully acknowledging in advance what he’s done here. While the music is all very good and the album as a whole largely enjoyable, its lack of identity works against it as it largely becomes a faceless amalgamation of styles rooted primarily in a zeitgeist-tapping aesthetic.
There’s simply not enough individuality here to make it standout, however; it’s all show and no real substance. Even Williams’ voice possesses a specific timbre that seems to be present in a number of contemporary indie artists stretching from Erza Koenig to Surfer Blood’s John Paul Pitts at his most mellow. Coupled with the music assembled here, it becomes largely devoid of any sort of artistic individuality or anything that would differentiate it from any number of similar releases mining comparable nostalgic territory.
Which is unfortunate as Gilding the Lily at it’s core really is a good album, it just doesn’t have enough present to differentiate itself from the pack. Perhaps once the ‘80s wave passes Williams can return to the decade that suits his approach to song craft the best, the 1960s. Before he does so, however, hopefully Gilding the Lily will bring him some of the attention his music so richly deserves.