If you’re searching for one word to describe the ’80s-leaning-into-’90s dream-pop throughline running through varied contemporary music (Taylor Swift, Chrvches, numerous indie-pop releases), one good candidate might be “swoon”. Or at least it comes to mind to describe Hatchie’s debut album Keepsake, which takes that of-the-moment, not-of-the-moment thematic direction and launches from there into the stratosphere. The album capitalizes on that swooning, realizes it, demolishes it.
Hatchie, aka Australian Harriette Pilbeam, is skilled at taking familiar sounds, lyrics and song titles (how many songs have been written with titles like “Stay With Me” and “Secret”?), and turning them into something huge, cinematic, completely involving at the heart, mind and body level. This is never quite dance music, never quite singer-songwriter confessionals, never quite prom slow-dance balladry – yet it is very much all of those things, all of the time, and then some. Not shoegaze, not trip-hop, not Top 40, not folk, not New Wave – yet all of these.
“Presence” is another good word, that feeling of the triumphant, desperate now. One example, clouded in intentional secrecy, is “Secret”, where she whisper-mumbles through some sensual sentiments and then asks, “Baby / can you keep a secret?” It’s in some small part a playful, abstract “Vogue” rewrite. Indeed, every song on Keepsake is a revision of a classic pop song, or at least a familiar pop theme, from a fresh new angle. The Cranberries are a clear favorite; as you’ll hear in the openings to “Not That Kind” and “Her Own Heart” (that is, the Cranberries when they’re in dream-pop mode, a la “Dreams” and “Linger”, not the more strident tone of “Zombie”). “Without a Blush” starts with the Cure in mind. The instant-classic single “Stay With Me” fills my brain with David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” for a brief second in the beginning and then washes it cleanly away.
The first song “Not That Kind” is a good example of how familiarity accelerates impact. Someday I’ll pinpoint where the line “I gave you want you wanted / but you threw it away, you threw it away” comes from – her delivery seems to be egging me on towards that recognition at every step.
Hatchie’s old-is-new, new-is-timeless approach breeds a feeling of comfort that she continually encourages, or basks in, and then subverts. It’s hard to keep track of the number of times a song on Keepsake conjures up something that feels ancient and then goes in a different direction. Often that direction is deeper inside, hitting us in the gut, but other times it’s outwards towards the world around us.
These songs offer cutting, emotional lyrics about romantic collapse, dressed in sheer beauty. There are bits of My Bloody Valentine or Cocteau Twins atmospheric soundscapery, but it’s too direct for a genre tag like “shoegaze” to stick; Keepsake‘s blend of expansion and razor-sharp focus is contrary and powerful.
The Cranberries’ “Zombie” might not be present here, but zombies are. There’s an “Unwanted Guest”, there are demons everywhere; there’s the feeling that human beings are obsessed with something that’s taken over them, they’re being driven by forces beyond their control. Is it our lurching towards the apocalypse moment that makes this type of grand, stylish, romantic pop music so resonate with a feeling of fear and devastation? Perhaps that’s how it’s always been with this style of music – certainly someone could tell a complete history of pop music through that framework (and probably has).
Keepsake is synthpop evocative of romantic dreams, ambitions, and perhaps delusions, played as overwhelming and involving enough to transition from infatuation to obsession to a full-on state of doom. Decades collapse into each other, hearts tear each other apart. “I know I shouldn’t be thinking / I shouldn’t even feel at all,” she quietly declares at the beginning of “When I Get Out”, towards the album’s end.
Keepsake contains nihilism and optimism at once. This tender, overwhelming pop music has a way of feeling like the soundtrack to the end of the world.