Jenn Champion
Photo: Jimmy Bazan / Terrorbird Media

Jenn Champion Sings About Death With a Synthpop Vibe

Jenn Champion’s melodies and superb synths keep things lively on Last Night of Sadness, even when heavy. It’s a thoughtful, harrowing, and catchy album.

The Last Night of Sadness
Jenn Champion
Gay Forever
13 October 2023

Jenn Champion has had a long career in music, despite Last Night of Sadness only being her second album under that name. She started as Jenn Ghetto and was a part of the indie-rock act Carissa’s Wierd in the late 1990s and early 2000s. When that band ended, she released bedroom folk-pop records under the name S. Finally, in 2015, she dropped the Ghetto moniker and became Jenn Champion. Her first album as Jenn Champion, Single Rider, came out in 2018 and was a wonderful 1980s synthpop pastiche that closed out with a run of affecting piano ballads. In the intervening five years, she’s put out scattered singles and EPs, as well as a synthpop interpretation of Weezer‘s first album.

Sonically, Last Night of Sadness opens in the same vein as Single Rider. “Famous” begins with shimmering high-end synth sounds and distinctively 1980s-style low-end bass notes. Lyrically, though, Champion is immediately introspective. The liner notes contain a disclaimer: “This record isn’t about the things that happened. It’s about what happens in my mind about what happened.” This allows Champion a bit of distance from the facts, but one expects some artistic license, even with highly personal stories. It’s fair to say that many of the lyrics on Last Night of Sadness seem autobiographically inspired, at the very least.

“Famous” covers a lot of lyrical ground very quickly, from being young and on drugs to being in therapy to cynicism about Hollywood. It helps that Champion delivers all of this information in a sweet, singable melody that leads into a hell of a pre-chorus, with the song’s biggest hook. “Fuck it / I’m not gonna make it / Turning the lights / Turning the lights off.” The second verse also includes this gem of a pop culture reference: “Never been in a fistfight / But I married a hot dyke / She’s wearing a Misfits shirt / But she’s a Metallica fan”, followed by a muttered “RIP, Cliff”.

Champion stays confessional throughout most of Last Night of Sadness. Luckily, the big, synthy hooks that characterized Single Rider are still driving the songs and tempering the, as the faux Parental Advisory sticker says on the LP, “Existential Dread”. “28” is a song about being in rehab, which Champion chooses to frame mostly fondly. This is intentionally undercut by the chorus, where she sings sadly, “I don’t think they’ll ever let me go back home.” Musically, the song is sparsely arranged, with simple chords and a John Carpenter-esque pulsing synth bass line.

“Love Song (think about it)” describes a relationship that sounds fraught with bad decisions over simple electric piano chords. She follows this up with “Think About It (the turn)”, which brings back the synths and electronic beats. The latter reinterprets the same chorus in a different context, linking the two songs very effectively despite being wildly divergent sonically.

There’s also a theme of dead friends running through the record. “Graves” is ostensibly about self-determination, but it begins with, “Thought there’d be dancing at your wake.” Its waves of synth chords are augmented, intriguingly, with a simple banjo line, which makes for a winning combination. The aspirational dance track “Millionaires” features a vocal sample from Murder Dice, whose name the liner notes attach a “RIP”.

Last Night of Sadness‘ emotional climax comes with “Jessica”, its penultimate track. It’s another ballad with a beautiful melody, this time played on acoustic piano. Champion’s sadness, anger, and frustration come together in one song. “Who OD’s in the fucking hospital / She stole morphine off the nurse’s cart…/ Stupid, dead Jessica.” This time, Champion keeps the arrangement simple with just vocals and piano, focusing more on the lyrics. The bridge lays it out starkly. “And I still love you / But it hurts now.” With the use of “stupid”, the song could come off as comedic, but in Champion’s hands, it’s appropriately emotionally wrenching.

The rest of Last Night of Sadness includes more variations on these themes. “Good News Bad News (we’re all gonna die)” is another bopping synth track with a variety of cool tones and Champion switching between a couple of different vocal styles. “Well Played” is slower and muted and includes maybe the album’s most direct introspection on death from Champion. Another singable melody keeps the song from being a slog, however. 

This record earns the “Warning: Existential Dread” sticker on its cover. Champion is getting out a lot of feelings here, and it could be a depressing 37 minutes. The 90-second closer, “Happy Birthday”, demonstrates what could’ve been. It immediately crosses the line into maudlin and stays there. “Hey, look at you / You didn’t die / Made it another 365” is how it starts, and it goes on to be among the most backhanded well-wishing I’ve heard. Champion’s strong melodies and excellent synth backing tracks keep things lively for the rest of Last Night of Sadness. The result is an album that’s a curious but winning combination of thoughtful, harrowing, and catchy.

RATING 8 / 10