“Detroit”, the opening track on Morgan Geist’s Double Night Time, is part travelogue, part love letter. Like 1997’s The Driving Memoirs, it’s a musical companion to a road trip, this time recounting Geist’s own personal trips out to Motor City raves during his college days at Oberlin. To Geist, Detroit is the almighty pilgrimage, where the birth pangs of techno were first heard in Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Carl Craig, and the like. The world before this was marked only in absence. “Black, black was the world,” go the lyrics. “But lights we saw from afar / Detroit.”
Like 2002’s eponymous debut by Metro Area, Geist’s group effort with Darshan Jesrani, which remains one of this decade’s most vital electronic documents, Double Night Time is an album that sounds best set against the iridescent scrim of city lights. It’s filled with Geist’s signature cosmic disco, which expectedly pits icy techno against warm synths. But the album also has a pulsating pop heart to it. He is teamed this time around with Jeremy Greenspan of the Junior Boys, one of the most affecting voices in pop today. The combination of Greenspan’s constrained white boy soul elocution and Geist’s slick compositional physique makes Double Night Time easily Geist’s best work since Metro Area.
It’s a personal album of remembrance and remorse. When an artist pursues an introspective album of this nature, it usually means that it’s time to unplug the electronics and let a series of more “organic” instruments tug for the heartstrings (piano, acoustic guitar, viola, etc.). Geist defies expectations by instead opting to plug in for his journal entries. Wired and ready, the end results may seem filched by proxy from the aesthetic of Junior Boys’ and Greenspan’s own So This Is Goodbye, but for those (like myself) frothing for a followup to that album, or for those just inclined towards well-crafted electropop, Double Night Time is a welcome treat to the ears.
Best of all are album cuts “The Shore” and “Most of All”, both of which could be contenders for breakthrough singles, if anything this infectiously delectable could ever break through to a mainstream audience any more. The Shore” adopts an Ed DMX-style beat, a jaunty finger-bass riff, and glistening analogue-inspired melodies that sound under dulcet regrets by Greenspan that are gently crooned as reverberated pinings that seem to echo out over the ocean. “Most of All”, on the other hand, arrives riding a robust, confident, and slightly mysterious electro R&B groove that reminds one a bit of Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”. The track then finds some kind of weird balance between strummed New Order guitars, a vocoded chorus that slightly resembles a robotic barbershop quartet, and wobbly disco melodies, before drifting off into a hypnotic vortex of staccato arpeggio at song’s end. Lyrically, it’s pretty much the epitome of pop disposability. But as such, it’s one of the year’s pinnacle moments in dumb lovelorn synthpop in a year that has seen its share.
The rest of the album doesn’t even come close to glimpsing the heights of those tracks, but with the exception of the tepid and kind of ineffectual closer “Lullaby”, Double Night Time is still a consistently solid outing. And though Greenspan’s blessed larynx often seems to have the ability to alchemically alter a track’s molecular structure, the instrumentals hold up particularly well against the vocal tracks.
“Skyblue Pink” is in charge of addressing the tension built up by the final third of “Most of All”. So, it deliberately starts small and crescendos into a darkly beautiful ambient prog piece in the vein of John Carpenter or Tangerine Dream’s early eighties soundtrack work. Both “Skyblue Pink” and the robotic rhumba of “Nocebo” spotlight Geist’s talent for making controlled and deterministic disco seem relatable rather than monotonous. “Nocebo” gets help by a series of breathy ahs and breezy Jan Hammer pads, but the spaces between the track’s brusque notes enunciate the sparseness of the song. Each of the instrumentals in this sense provides an aside dance cut lingering between the melancholy love storyline of the pop tracks, like each is a chance for Geist to dance away his troubles as expressed moments before by Greenspan. The only time this proves distracting though is on “Palace Life”, which explores the thin terrain separating acid house from Italo-disco. It is an undeniably hot track, but it takes a slight tangential lilt from the assumed trajectory of the rest of the album, particularly after the downtempo rejection ballad “Ruthless City”.
“Cities of Smoke and Flame”, however, returns from the nightclubbing of “Palace Life” in what almost seems to be a praise of domesticity, bemoaning the forced alienation that falls upon a couple constantly torn apart by a life on tour. “I don’t know you / But then I know you / Away a thousand miles / And then I hold you”, Greenspan says mournfully. “All our flights away / I guess that’s who we are”. Double Night Time‘s dancefloor-ready material doesn’t leave one entirely convinced that Geist is ready to abandon that lifestyle just yet. However, with this album, he has molded a solid foundation for a future in mature synthpop, the next trip in Geist’s extended journey. And though he’s finally driving beyond it, I think we can rest easy knowing he’ll never forget Detroit.