“Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs.”
—W. Shakespeare; Romeo and Juliet: Act 1, Scene 1
Nine years is a long gestation period for any debut, but some things are worth the wait. Following Cigarettes After Sex’s 2012 EP I., a string of breakthrough singles, and a hauntingly effective cover of REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You”, the ambient pop collective have gone from quiet obscurity to darlings of the blogosphere. Having relocated from the Chihuahuan Desert of El Paso to the boroughs of New York City, this talented band and its bearded frontman continue to rise, poised for global recognition as they embark upon a sixth-month, international tour beginning June 29. The quartet’s smokey-eyed songs breathe with dark nuance, each devastating track allowing Greg Gonzalez’s seductive voice, one of elegant, epicene beauty, to blossom and dance in the shadows.
The album kicks off with “K.”, an addictively hummable ode to unexpected intimacy. It captures that moment when a subtle glance alters the course of a casual affair, and detached eroticism evolves into something more than a post-coital puff. Setting the atmosphere for the entire collection of songs ahead, this is the only track carried over from the promotional singles that preceded the album. “Affection” could have survived the cutting room floor, and variety in tempi wouldn’t have been frowned upon, but there is, however, a disciplined, razor sharp focus here that was not captured on the earlier EP.
“Each Time You Fall In Love”, with its distinctly Badalamenti vibe, appears next, and one half-expects a platinum blonde Julee Cruise to step up to the mic. The single’s Philippe Bréson cover features a woman lying naked in a fetal position next to a skull. It’s an image at once sensual yet macabre as if sex and death are inextricably bound. A nameless observer asks why you are never fully satisfied with any romance, and at that moment, it appears like Gonzalez is speaking directly to the listener.
Most of the album’s lyrical content explores love, regret, and heartbreak. Well, that and red, risqué lingerie, the occasional crashing helicopter, and naughty shower videos. The most arresting moment though lies within “Sunsetz”. A striking visual of contrasts is posed, one that paints a scene of a sun setting on an old playground swing set and the carnality of adulthood, as a woman opens her dress to reveal her tights in such a place of childlike innocence. It is a stunning highlight.
Midway through the album in “Opera House”, Gonzalez pays homage to Werner Herzog’s obsessive title character from the 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, singing “All of my love for your cuts like barbed wire.” Final track “Young & Dumb”, with its “I know full well that you are / The patron saint of sucking cock / Señorita, you’re a cheater / Well, so am I” line, tips a hat towards the smutty tenderness of novelist Richard Brautigan’s poetry. It is one of the few sardonic moments throughout the record when Gonzalez seems to crack a smile.
Like the sultry “Sunsetz” and the widescreen, cinematic “John Wayne”, the intro to “Apocalypse” instantly elicits thoughts of Robin Guthrie’s gossamer guitar dreamscapes with Cocteau Twins. The influences are everywhere, from the somber, noirish vibe of a Margo Timmins-fronted Cowboy Junkies, the breathy eroticism of Françoise Hardy, the hymn-like meditative mood of an introspective Leonard Cohen or Perry Blake tune, and the ethereal air of a twinkly-lit Mazzy Star track. Gonzalez has cited Mark Kozelek’s “Katy Song” and the 1960s American girl group the Paris Sisters as inspirational touch-points as well, but all these stylistic references evaporate like wisps of smoke when he takes a breath and begins to sing.
For once, the hype is entirely justified. This is quite possibly one of the best albums of the year. There is so much to admire here, and while it will be interesting to see what stylistic direction the band takes going forward, albums of such raw immediacy don’t come around all that often, regardless of the genre. Cigarettes After Sex are the stuff of late night drives, old black-and-white films, and prolonged hedonistic reveries worth revisiting again and again.