The Stereolab songstress brings us an album of familiar themes that pushes her latest chapter into deeper territory and works to correct the missteps of 2012’s Silencio.
Stereolab has a definitive place in the landscape of modern music. They spawned the indie-electronic movement that caught on stateside in the aughts and has come to shape our current popular culture. Analog synths are now casually mentioned in car commercials, the Arcade Fire won a Grammy, LCD Soundsystem sold out Madison Square Garden. Hell, Jens Lekman sold us an Amazon Kindle. The history writes itself and Laetitia Sadier, the authorial voice of Stereolab, is deeply entrenched in the citations.
Sadier’s entries this decade have a height that sets them apart from each other, which is rare for any artist, let alone one who has been active for nearly 30 years.The Trip, her first solo work, presented the opportunity to establish herself separately from Stereolab’s legacy with great reward. The album was heralded as one of the most overlooked of 2010, giving Sadier the chance to re-enchant listeners. Her follow-up, 2012’s Silencio, saw a bit of a return to form by recycling the poppy/riotous mix that made her work with Stereolab so infectious – but amid the screams for justice of the Occupy movement, Silencio was barely a yelp.
Sadier seems to have taken a new direction with Something Shines, finding a nice middle ground between her last two albums, yet somehow erring a little too far on the side of safety. Sonically, the album is consistent and an enjoyable journey through an aesthetic, which is largely the way her work has always been structured. Aural themes run throughout, creating a strong current for the listener that simultaneously establishes their sense of home within the album while alienating them from their experience and expectations. A vast and textured sonic landscape could give way to a Casio-era drum machine and hard-hitting piano riff without notice. These moves do well to remind us of how smart a composer Sadier is – it was always too easy to attribute the skew of Stereolab to Tim Gane.
Lyrically, Something Shines finds its clearest departure points from the politically-charged Silencio and the unwieldily ‘Marxist pop’ moniker of Stereolab. Utilizing familiar themes (small vs. big, the individual vs. the machine), Sadier hones in on the systems and exchanges that exist between two people in relationship, rather than focusing solely on the top-down structure of the state. Some songs paint vivid pictures of late-in-life romances (“I don’t see how, how to reconcile / How to transgress the boundary reality’s holding in place / Until your oh so precious little ones, from past union / Have found their way”) and the heartbreak of stirring in your settlement. One of the most moving tracks is “The Milk of Human Tenderness”, wherein Sadier continues to unpack the devastation of her sister’s suicide (the thesis of The Trip). The listener stumbles into the most crucial time for those left in the wake of a loss, the weeks after. Here, Sadier deals with the “Boxes, leftovers, piled up simulacrum” that remain after someone is gone, by choice or by chance. It is profoundly relatable and sorrowful.
Sadier’s use of language throughout Something Shines is sharp as ever as she phases between English and French to create the best narrative. This approach beautifully showcases the strengths of each tongue’s intricacies and inherent character. “The Scene of the Lie” could be about the institutionalized distancing of a people from their history to weaken them, but it is possibly a lament of the heart’s tendency to separate what we have learned from what we are feeling with each new attraction, leading us into a minefield of potential hurt. The only overtly political track on Something Shines is “Oscuridad” and it is absolutely the album’s weakest. In a collection that uses war as metaphor so keenly, “Oscuridad” stands alone as unnecessary (and unwelcome) runoff from Silencio.
Something Shines ends strongly, with a song that brings clarity and closure to the album. In “Life Is Winning”, Sadier uses a nuclear disaster to frame the uncertainty of life and the gamble that we take each with every step, every word. Once again we hear her struggle with settling, as Sadier seems more content to “Take [her] responsibilities / In an uncertain world” than to “Die of shame to have accepted / The world as it is.” The track also illuminates the album title – as we wade through the darkness and length of life, we will find the things worth finding and they will (to borrow Sadier’s wording) let us die of joy before we die.