Barely audible voices, a rustling ambience, the clacking keys of a typewriter – the opening track of Claire Rousay’s new album, A Softer Focus, sets the scene as the introduction of what is not necessarily a collection of songs, but randomly captured moments in a given day, with somewhat traditional instrumentation gradually making appearances. The deliberately paced, almost luxuriously unfolding nature of this album are one of the many things that make it so striking and compelling.
While Rousay composed the music and performed most of the instruments, A Softer Focus is a collaboration with longtime friend Dani Toral. Toral created the artwork and visual narrative (including photography and accompanying video components) and assisted with the linguistic aspects such as song and album titles. As titles go, A Softer Focus is as on-the-nose as you can get for this album in that while it contains a hefty dose of the experimentalism Rousay is known for, it approaches its unconventional sound with a decidedly lighter, less abrasive touch. The aforementioned opening song, “Preston Ave”, leads seamlessly into “Discrete (The Market)”, consisting largely of a field recording of Rousay visiting a local farmer’s market. Meanwhile, Lia Kohl’s cello combines with piano and synthesizers to create a warm, sustained vibe on top of rain and traffic sounds.
On “Peak Chroma”, the sustained notes create tension and unease, while the lyrics – which began as an iPhone Notes entry, according to Rousay – are delivered in an oddly treated, mechanical manner. “I’m trying not to miss you / I put on the newest Blackbear song.” The lyrics rise out of the song’s muted chaos and aren’t necessarily a focal point but rather another unusual and unsettling aspect of this multilayered, epic track (clocking in at nearly nine minutes). Here and elsewhere, snippets of conversations are captured – including a rather innocuous exchange about social media. One gets the impression that Rousay is carrying us in her back pocket as she goes about her day, and we’re all privy to her daily routine. In this sense, A Softer Focus functions almost like a surreal audio diary.
The only other song that contains lyrics is “Stoned Gesture”, where the field recordings include everything from clinking ice in drinks to neighborhood fireworks before more Auto-tuned vocals enter the fray. “First time I got a hug from you, it felt right / I might have said it for you / I’m trying to make some sort of stoned gesture / To let you know that I appreciated it.” As on “Peak Chroma”, the lyrics seem to hint at specific moments or emotions, but their appearances are too brief to be fully analyzed, further adding to the album’s quiet mystery.
As all the songs tend to run into each other without pauses (save for the LP side break that separates “Peak Chroma” and “Diluted Dreams”), A Softer Focus has the feel of one long piece of music, but it’s one that contains a variety of elements which clash magnificently. The humdrum trappings of everyday life mesh with a violin. The mechanical sounds that accompany an errand are intertwined with keyboard chords. On “A Kind of Promise”, Rousay closes the album with the warm, stirring interplay of piano and cello – over a bed of outdoor sounds and random, glitchy bursts of distortion. The world is full of beauty and noise, and Claire Rousay has the uncanny ability to translate these disparate elements into a gorgeous, unique musical journey.