Roman à Clef quietly charms and shatters with this evocative debut album.
Ryan Newmyer and Jen Goma of A Sunny Day in Glasgow and Kurt Feldman of Ice Choir recently joined forces to create what could (perhaps crassly) be called a dreampop supergroup. The Brooklyn trio’s confident debut alternates between playful, transcendent, and obfuscating. Although Abandonware wears all the airy trappings of meticulously crafted shoegaze, this is music that refuses to be pinned down.
The title track, “Abandonware (Hannah and Zoe)” is downbeat, atmospheric, with vocals layered throughout a melancholy haze. It sets a sweetly longing tone that the rest of the album more than augments. “The Prisoner,” as the lyrics say, “give[s] up that ancient rose” with warm, reverberating strums and strings punctuated by a drum track that feels chilly and mechanical in comparison. Breathy wisps of vocals swirl and entice us into a poppy dreamworld that vibrates with subtle malevolence, a siren song.
“PSBTV” employs undulating synths and clever lyrics to explore relationships, asking if “it was a mistake to study sociology". The track bounces and cavorts through an engaging new wave-inspired arrangement. “Friends, Today” slows things down a bit, showcasing the meticulous production that defines Roman à Clef’s scintillating sound. “Bye Gone” is so '80s you can almost smell the hairspray, reveling in exaggeratedly spacey keyboards and little ironic flourishes that keep it—just barely—from tumbling over into kitsch territory.
“Lucky Toasts,” another melancholic tune drenched in insta-nostalgia, is a lovely depiction of lost love. Delicate and hopeful, this track is a standout on an album filled with gentle forays into the emotional fallout of past relationships. “Roman Clay (27 BC)” is an excellent showcase for Newmyer’s droll but heartfelt delivery on an album that focuses largely on Goma’s entrancing pixie whispers. The two sing, “Your heart is like an open book / full of misdirection and red herrings”—Abandonware in a nutshell. The widely praised closing track “Abandonware (Josh and Jer)” comes on as achingly romantic as the rest of the album, contrasting dark lyrics with fizzy pop elements before a driving guitar riff rattles its cage, shattering the illusion of “the ghost that shares your name".
These songs shimmer and shift like intricate miniatures under a magnifying glass, revealing new facets with each additional listen. A cursory pass sounds like bittersweet, effervescent pop in the mode of Belle & Sebastian. Then the blending of elements changes, and a menacing element—a dissonant sound or darkly quirky lyric—rises up from the background of the composition.
If one were so inclined, it would be easy to point out that these songs are fairly samey, blending one into another with little change in their overall absinthe-and-cotton-candy aesthetic. Roman à Clef isn’t interested in ambitious genre hopping, though—this is decadent electro pop, and it glories in its own beautiful artifice as the album passes like a lovelorn sigh.
Some artists make music that nourishes and satisfies on a primal level, earthy and flavorful as a homemade meal; Roman à Clef makes cake. But that’s okay—Abandonware is very good cake.