Darling of the Afterglow
(Arbutus / Bella Union)
US: 31 Mar 2017
UK: 31 Mar 2017
With her 2014 debut Right From Real, Lydia Ainsworth established herself as a purveyor of futuristic synthpop with a parallel appreciation for baroque and even medieval music. She has a knack for weaving layered, multitracked vocal melodies that make her sound like a monstrous cyborg, yet it has often been the notes plucked from antiquity, and not the chilly electronics, that lend her music its austere and perplexing beauty. On her sophomore effort Darling of the Afterglow, Ainsworth hones a similar tension. If anything, she chooses to develop the archaic elements further, while delving vocally into a bolder pop territory. The result is a warmer and more open effort than Right From Real, one that achieves remarkable consistency throughout.
The ritualistic mood is inescapable, and Ainsworth often sings as though she is summoning the sun itself to rise over the mountain tops. The humid liturgy “Afterglow” floats over a characteristically monastic chant, while “The Road” uses dramatic piano and wide-angle vocal takes to create a sense of myth and storytelling. On the spectacular “Open Doors”, her voice is measured, solemn, and spacious, the undercurrent of a whisper lending the song a sense of gravity and darkness. Yet, Ainsworth is not all doom and gloom: a perky guitar line appears halfway through to thaw the ice, connoting real joy and even peace. As much as Ainsworth hews to the grand and mythological, she injects moments of levity like this one at all the right times, thus avoiding becoming too self-serious or weighty.
Whereas Right From Real was produced entirely in Ainsworth’s bedroom, much of Darling of the Afterglow was recorded in the studio. As a result, the album has more of a live band feel to it. To borrow a phrase Jimmy Page used to describe Led Zeppelin’s own “The Battle of Evermore”, “What Is It?” could rightly be described as a “dance-around-the-maypole number”. Ainsworth’s galloping vocal delivery is fine as ever, but the banjo-laden production suffers for being a bit lackluster, generic, and even cheesy. The song is just a few inches shy of turning into a Sarah McLachlan tune, with all the good and bad that entails.
Mostly, however, Ainsworth’s pop instincts are sharp. “Ricochet”, one of the most purely electronic tracks here, is a robust and triumphant number every bit as memorable as “Take Your Face Off” and “Hologram”. Meanwhile, Ainsworth gets as close as ever to pop diva belting on the moody, cavernous “Into the Blue”. The latter track features heavily processed backup vocals that, strangely, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Banks song.
The album’s only real misstep is the entirely unnecessary inclusion of Ainsworth’s “Wicked Game” cover. The 1989 Chris Isaak tune has already been covered to death and may be just shy of “Hallelujah” status at this point. Ainsworth offers little reason to provide another update, performing the song as a spare piano ballad with few distinguishing characteristics from the multitude of other interpretations. The song does not even fit particularly well alongside its neighbors, which are all more complex and exciting in terms of structure, sound, and mood alike. Ainsworth first released “Wicked Game” as a single in 2015, and would have been better off simply leaving it at that rather than muddying up her otherwise gorgeous album.
Still, Darling of the Afterglow is a successful return overall for Ainsworth. She has retained most of the musical idiosyncrasy that made Right From Real such a beguiling and adventurous listen, while also opening her music up into bolder, more natural territory. The album may earn her a wider audience, though it is one Ainsworth should have had all along. While she is hardly the only artist mixing traditional musical forms with contemporary electronics, she does so with her unmistakable touch. Her latest album broadens and expands the reach of her already deft compositions.
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