“When all has gone to blazes I start to run / Until I find places where nobody’s gone”
We’ve come a very long way since those vaginal aluminum foil trees had ejaculate arrows getting shot through them.
For those playing catch-up, Jonna Lee, who got her start by trying to be Sweden’s answer to Sheryl Crow, started releasing extremely surreal, occasionally sexual, and sometimes downright nightmarish video clips under the iamamiwhoami moniker in late 2009. The name alone incited numerous online sleuths to try and figure out who was behind the synth-heavy surrealism that was suddenly becoming all the rage in indie-rock circles. Early guesses was that it was a side venture for Nine Inch Nails, or maybe Lady Gaga.
Yet, the weird sounds that were bumping out of this cryptic YouTube channel soon coalesced into some rather progressive pop music. The cinema-grade quality of these music videos told their own dreamlike story, and it wasn’t long until a cult following began emerging around Lee’s audio-visual fantasia. kin (2012), complete with a yeti-heavy visual narrative, was experimental pop music at its very best, each song having a structure and a very clear sense of purpose all its own. This structure held even as death-rattle keyboards were married to hot dance beats, groovy synth lines were met with Lee’s echo-chamber vocals. Even with more conventional song frameworks in place, the project never once forgot its own daring sense of exploration and wonder. Although the visuals were undeniably distinct, it was songs like the yearning “play” and the bewitching disco of “goods” that kept people coming back, realizing that this wasn’t any gimmick or flash-in-the-pan kind of novelty. Lee was now writing the best songs of her entire career and, in some cases, some of the best songs of this young decade.
So when the new feature “fountain” dropped in January of 2014, some fans were a bit taken back by what they heard: warm synth pads, crisp production, and perhaps the most straightforward melody we’ve ever heard from Lee and her team of collaborators.. It was almost as if, when coupled with the expansive aquatic imagery of its video, iamamiwhoami was now readying for its big jump into the mainstream, toning down the weirdness and amping up the accessibility in order to expand its grasp beyond simply being the best-kept secret in all of pop music.
The strange thing? All these assumptions turned out to be 100% true, and blue, the project’s third full-length effort, is far and away the poppiest, catchiest thing it has ever done. This 10-track album is littered with absolutely gargantuan pop songs, the skyscraping choruses towering over everything else Lee has done prior. No, blue is not a perfect album, but just like all those other discs in this collective’s limited discography, it still comes pretty damn close.
Opening with the widescreen wonder of “fountain”, Lee rides a solid mid-tempo groove as synth plucks percolate all around her, but soon turns her lyrical focus towards heavy aquatic imagery, carefully matching all the corresponding video clips in mood and tone. “Let the shallows of above forget us / Getting closer to the bottom,” she coos on the thumping “tap your glass”, making a drowning pact sound like a romantic getaway unlike any other, continuing: “Adventures of a life in the cold / never be forgotten.”
It all sounds a bit cryptic, and before long we get “the last dancer”, a rare song that could be either really optimistic or extremely depressing depending on how you interpret it. The song’s warm chorus contains lines like “look at the stars in the winter sky / everything will be tonight / what a beautiful day to die,” signaling either a resigned need to end one’s life or perhaps an acceptance of one’s own mortality having realized that she’s accomplished all she’s needed to do with her life. The fact that the narrator can see the stars but it’s still a beautiful day to die leaves its own surrealistic questions that remain unanswered, but iamamiwhoami has never been straightforward on the lyrical front, nor does it need to. To paraphrase Roger Ebert’s review of Mulholland Drive, this isn’t an album that spells out an explicit purpose: what it feels like is more important than what it is, each listener capable of taking their own meaning out of it, even as Lee as a lyricist still draws the listener in a specific direction, her own words are light on definitive interpretations themselves.
And make no mistake: it is nearly impossible not to be drawn into blue‘s many charms. Lee and producer Claes Björklund have aimed straight for the heart this time out, piling on the ‘80s synth sounds but mixing up the texture and tempos just enough to prevent the album from becoming too monochromatic upon repeated listens. “hunting for pearls” gallops along like it’s trying to rescue a kidnapped Kate Bush, while “vista” may very well be the best song that M83 has never written, its cues drawn from John Hughes soundtracks even as its end result is something far more relatable and contemporary. The cool synth rush that gives “blue blue” its warmth sharply contrast with the frenzied, schizophrenic-robot opening of “ripple”, just as how the syncopated breaths that make up the beat of the minor-key mourner “thin” are far removed from the cavernous mood swings of closer “shadowshow”. While blue doesn’t feature as many sonic left-turns as the collective’s previous albums, it more than makes up for that in out-and-out consistency, diving headfirst into an ocean made entirely out of synth washes and then proceeding to do one hell of a choreographed routine in there to keep our attention.
While the clanging “thin” does very much feel like an outlier in terms of overall tone and “the last dancer” would have made a far more effective closer than “shadowshow”, blue is, like kin, one of those rare pop albums where your favorite song may change on a week-by-week basis. “vista” may draw you in, but the stutter-stop pre-chorus of “tap your glass” may be the thing you keep coming back to. This may be all before you end up admitting to yourself that “chasing kites” may be one of the most perfectly-structured and immaculately-executed pop songs of the past five years, not a single note out of place, its chorus lifting you up even as its lyrics draw your focus inward. Over the span of a mere three albums, iamamiwhoami has firmly established itself as one of the most daring acts in all of pop music. Even with blue seemingly tilting its way towards the mainstream, there is darkness buried at the bottom of these shimmering pop numbers, with more than enough mystery here to dissect and absorb for years to come.
After pushing into new visual realms with its early music videos, iamamiwhoami has taken the biggest risk of all by making a full-on pop album, and it paid off gloriously. blue isn’t only the most satisfying record in the collective’s discography; it’s also one of the best albums released this year.
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