Fear of Men's music works on a mix of comfort and discomfort; the instruments play both sweetly and ominously.
"You will never leave me / As long as I inter you with my bones" – a romantic sentiment? Or a vision of hell? The song, "Waterfall", is, like many of Fear of Men's songs, rumination on the push and pull, the power dynamic, of a relationship between two humans. "Our lives contracted", lead vocalist Jessica Weiss sings, perhaps playing on both definitions of the word "contract". The music plays well with this mix of comfort and discomfort; the instruments play both sweetly and ominously; her singing rings with fear, anxiety and tenderness all at once.
The Brighton, UK-based group has, on their debut album Loom, a sound both unique and familiar. (It's their debut album proper, that is, after 2011's singles compilation Early Fragments, which from the title was marked as not an official debut. You only say "early" at the onset if you're expecting to be around a long time). Reviewers have brought up various '90s touchpoints – mainly other female-fronted UK bands – but the guitars and drums sometimes have a post-punk tone, the melodies can be sweet and playful in a DIY indie-pop way and the overall sound often slips into dream-pop that might be more '80s than '90s.
It's a combination that works exceedingly well with the imagery and themes in Loom's songs – water/earth, strength/weakness, reality/imagination, life/death. The construction of the songs, and the way they play them, speaks to these dualities in a very particular way – voicing the tougher, darker sentiments while simultaneously softening and lightening them.
A few of the songs end in a breaking-off into distortion – it's a trick, in a way, that fits with the album's preference for mystery. While Weiss sings about the tensions and struggles of life in concrete ways, the unknown plays a major role in the expressed feelings. The unknown beckons, and overtakes. "Something's wrong, shadows are swallowing me / And I don't know what to do," she sings in "Green Sea".
At the same time that she sings about being pulled down into darkness, about being perplexed by the ways we imagine each other, she also powerfully expresses concrete, specific emotions. One of the moments that jumps out at me is in "Luna" when, after singing about trying to destroy "unbearable memories" that come in her sleep because of the song's target, Weiss sings, "I hope you know that I, I open at your touch", her voice getting more tender as she utters those words. It's a sensual, unsettling moment. Throughout the album she has a way of being visceral and theoretical at once.
Early Fragments showcased the band's talents in a rough enough way to get a lot of notice. Loom fills out the sketch of that collection, bringing along a fuller musical scope that makes the emotions and ideas play as more powerful. To say emotions and ideas seems wrong, actually; there's no disconnect here between the two. There are internal dialogues going on here about a host of ideas central to living and dying. The music amplifies them but also speaks in its own conversation with them.
If Fear of Men's psychological, scientific, philosophical approach to love and life and death and the unknown sometimes seems to inspire music critics to start waxing poetic about Freud and Emily Dickinson (see Tiny Mix Tapes’ review), I understand why. There is much depth to what the group is doing here, more so than with most of their contemporaries. At the same time, my reaction is almost the opposite. Sometimes the highest praise I can give an album is to admit that I've listened to it 20 or 30 times, liking it more each time, yet find myself at a loss for words when it comes to describing the music. Loom is an outstanding collection of sharp, smart pop-rock songs that also sweep over us in an involving way that can in the process wash away the feeling that I need to analyze or concretely pin down everything that's going on.