Ten years later and we are still commending the Postal Service’s single album, Give Up. That’s not a statement of incredulity; rather, a statement of disbelief. When songs are chewed up and spat out with the rapidity of a microwave lunch, ten years is an eternity to still give a damn about an album of electro-pop. But enough about the Postal Service — I did not come to praise it, I came to bury it in the wake of Lusine’s The Waiting Room.
From the label that may as well be the standard-bearer for innovative electronic-based music, Ghostly International houses consistently creative artists who are criminally underrated in popular music. Matthew Dear, Mux Mool, Phantogram, and Lusine, the singular vision of Texas musician Jeff McIlwain, an electronic manipulator more than capable of creating albums that can expand your aural sense while planting hooks in your cerebral cortex. He’s got a list of albums and LPs to submit for evidence of his talent, yet, The Waiting Room, despite its initial slow burn, may be his finest. Pick out any number of elements that coalesce into an impressive whole: the breadth of styles McIlwain demonstrates deep understanding of, the tiny electronic flourishes that go unnoticed without headphones, the climactic sequencing of the tracks. Sonically and instrumentally, there is more than enough to admire, but the extra bonus on The Waiting Room are the sublime vocal contributions from Sarah McIlwain, an extra layer of adornment piled on an already substantive record.
Exactly half of The Waiting Room contains vocal contributions from Ms. McIlwain and those five tracks are inherently attractive because of McIlwain’s beatific feminine presence. “By This Sound” and “Another Tomorrow” are elevated above mere ambient status into the realm of electro-pop royalty — areas currently inhabited by Grimes, Purity Ring, and Washed Out. The stunners are McIlwain’s reconditioning of Electronic’s “Get the Message”, and the weary, melancholic destination of “Without a Plan”. Part of Bernard Sumner’s attractiveness has always been the ease with which he tosses off accusatory lines and “Get the Message” has plenty of missives. But hearing McIlwain slyly sing, “I loosen my wallet just for you/ don’t do me any favors” is borderline revelatory. Opting for a cover in an already-strong album means you better bring something new to the table, and they do. (Better than the original? Dare I suggest it?) But it’s the resigned, way in which McIlwain intones, “I move without a plan,” that captures plenty of ennui and resignation. It’s a bittersweet love song placed at peak time within The Waiting Room’s structure. (Track six, or Side B, first song.) Welcome to the comedown, just don’t expect to be let down easy.
Despite Ms. McIlwain’s undeniable vocal turns, the architect is Mr. McIlwain, the electronic maestro behind the boards. From the tone-setting description of “Panoramic” — an expansive opener that builds up layers after a slow fade-in — to the closing statement of “February” — a seven-minute opus that sneaks into your subconscious — McIlwain has drawn a map for other artists to follow and for listeners to absorb. For the majority of The Waiting Room, it’s a seamless journey from could-be club hits (“Lucky”) through Krautrock roots (“By This Sound”) and back to electro-pop (“Get the Message”, “Without a Plan”) without any of that trendy, soulless Dubstep. The Waiting Room hangs together as an affecting portrait of electronic music’s possibilities. Maybe, as its title suggests, we’ve been waiting, looking in completely the wrong places for another large-scale record of this order. If so, let’s bury the Postal Service and have Lusine play at their funeral.