George Lewis, Jr. is an honest man. He’s been refreshingly upfront about his decision to grace his second album’s cover — “I’m a good-looking guy” — as well as his adoration for his much-maligned home state of Florida, the superiority of Puerto Rican hairdressers, and his voracious appetite for drugs and women while on tour. His 2010 debut as Twin Shadow, Forget, followed a very real breakup with a breakup record, and was as personal as it was polished. His much anticipated follow-up, Confess, pushes his candor further. Like Forget, it forges an amicable compromise between INXS, Don Henley, and the Cure, but Lewis has foregone that album’s collaborations and extensive revision this time around in the interest of expressing himself exactly how he wants. The outcome is looser, flakier, and more grandiose; Lewis sings every anthemic chorus to the cheap seats with aching abandon. Maybe it’s inevitable that Confess wants for the discipline of its predecessor, and yet Lewis’s ultra-confident, high-gloss sincerity is more often than not pretty hard to resist anyway.
The foremost collaborator Lewis parts with on Confess is Grizzly Bear’s multitalented Chris Taylor, and while his specific contribution to Forget can be hard to parse out, comparison between the two albums suggests a line editor’s pitiless supervision. Overindulgence is not among the many things Grizzly Bear could be accused of, and one imagines that Taylor would have advised against Lewis’s here. The usual suspects of ’80s synth-pop hedonism — antiseptic guitar reverb, saccharine keyboards, deceptively simple (or just plain simple) post-punk rhythms — are piled on while Lewis’s vibrant vocals, by turns brooding and effusive, shoulder more of the melodic burden than before. The massive hooks of “Golden Light”, “Five Seconds”, “Run My Heart”, and “The One” therefore emerge from a sound that’s strangely dissonant and clumsy.
In a way, the artist-helmed production’s inelegance resonates with Lewis’s lyrics as an aesthetic of missed connections. He reportedly based his ten lovelorn tales — 11 counting the bonus track at the end — on frustrated romances he has had on the road. The heart is accordingly a stubborn thing on Confess, yearning against wisdom and all odds (“Five Seconds”) while standing against any attempts to breach its boundaries (“Run My Heart”). Lewis gives himself over to power games (“Patient”) while arrogantly letting “The One” slip away from him. “I don’t give a damn about the scene,” he protests, except that “it’s my only way back to you” (“You Call Me On”), but not before warning that “if you chase after me / Doesn’t mean you can see” on “Golden Light”. The backdrop of unresolved fragments, ambient synths, and limp solos, played emphatically like wheels spinning furiously in a ditch is therefore appropriate, however accidentally.
It also pushes Lewis himself to the front, an intention his generosity to the press and choice in album art indicate as plainly as the music itself. His interest in nostalgic textures earned Twin Shadow the categorical company of Neon Indian, Ariel Pink, Panda Bear, Washed Out, and other “chillwave” artists, but Lewis was always an odd fit: he’s not as electro as Neon Indian, nor as cavalier as Pink, and above all, never as willing as any of them to get buried in the mix. Identifying himself as a man of color in the opening strains of Forget was a vivid resistance against his peers’ facelessness, and his gentle, voluminous, unadulterated voice gave the album an unmistakably human touch. On Confess, he’s jettisoned his modest sun-warped beginnings and become a full-on crooner. His voice carries the album, and indeed nearly compensates for its persistent faults: where the guitar and synth lines feel half-hearted, Lewis’s vocal lines are fully-formed, giving and emotive, at once exuberant, vulnerable, and seductive.
But some of Lewis’s conceits are simply less compelling than he seems to think they are, with or without his trusty pipes to give them coherence. Confess is front-loaded; its first five tracks would have made a killer EP, but the other half is much spottier. “Patient” attempts to conjure up some Prince-like menace, superfluous guitar wailing included; “Beg for the Night” aims for straight-faced synth-pop; and “Be Mine Tonight” aims for adult contemporary balladeering. All three fall pretty flat, making them guilty pleasure filler, if not exactly unlistenable: It’s easy to hear what they’re going for, and easy to hear them fail. “When the Movie’s Over” is closer to guilty pleasure, period, with its okay verses and great goth-boy chorus. There’s undeniable pleasure in its Depeche Mode-indebted excess.
One of the most satisfying tracks on Confess, however, is one of its quietest. “I Don’t Care” caps off an album’s worth of cocky rejection and abject begging with smoldering surrender to the futility of a real connection. With its martial, austere bravado, it’s an R&B confessional in the mode of The-Dream and the Weeknd. Its refrain, “I don’t care… as long as we can dance around the room / While we lie,” recalls his early single “When We’re Dancing”, still his finest moment, and on “I Don’t Care” as on “Dancing”, Lewis is willing to turn a deaf ear to a relationship’s breakdown in exchange for a few moments, however fleeting, of sensual bliss. Confess, which is big on emotions but a bit shallow and murky on the details, inspires a similar attitude.