Electronic dance music has been gaining popularity since the dawn of the 21st century, but the 2010s have seen the style dominate the mainstream. Even though enormous festivals where producers slam bangers at hordes of giddy fans can now be found all over the world, some are already observing EDM’s decline. In 2013, The Quietus wondered if modern dance music would follow in the same footsteps as video games had in the ’80s. In 2016, Pitchfork laid out a timeline of dwindling EDM popularity. EDM at the very least has reached cultural saturation, standing in as the default conception of electronic music that techno and rave occupied in the ’90s.
For some, EDM’s sound has never held much appeal. Its quest for extremism, by pinning the meters at maximum loudness with brutal compression, leaves little room for subtlety. Many tracks feature predictable buildups that coalesce into orgasmic “drops”. Lead instruments tend toward variations on sawtooth waves or ubiquitous hoover basses. But the real issue arises when EDM’s production methods become entrenched as the only way of writing songs, calcifying the rich genre of electronic music as a whole.
Alternate aesthetics have, of course, always existed. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is one such artist who represents a flipped alternative to the hypermasculine, aggressive styles of stadium electronic music’s buzzsaw basses and trebly sirens. Smith would rather sample a small clicking instrument than be spending hours tinkering in Massive or Serum. Her compositions spotlight timbre over bombast, free from the strictures of building towards a drop. She explores quietude, having the same fascination with microscopic sounds as Mira Calix. Running her voice through a chorusing effect à la Laurel Halo, Smith’s songs invoke calm, like a mother’s song.
Her new work, The Kid, continues the direction of her last solo work, EARS, but features fewer electronic elements in favor of organic instrumentation, no small move for someone who owes much of her earlier career to the Buchla modular systems. The Kid begins with a hint of exotica by way of Martin Denny with “I Am a Thought”, which returns on “Who I Am and Why I Am Where I Am”. A placid groove settles in on “An Intention”, crescendoing into swirling majesty by its end. “A Kid” recalls Matmos or the Icelandic electronic group Múm, its clicks and cuts presenting a charming side of melodic electronica.
Smith’s voice often becomes a buried instrument in the mix, as in “I Am Learning”, which finds her moaning syllables amongst blippy synths and lightly clattering percussion. “In the World, but Not of the World” and “To Follow and Lead” show Smith at her most upbeat and assertive, while the murky “Until I Remember” releases tension with a memorable synth line that joins the squeaking arrangement. “In the World” introduces a flute and horn overture that breaks down into its central electronic passage as Smith intones single syllables, a technique she also uses in “I Am Learning” and “To Follow and Lead”.
Smith’s delivery recalls a shy teenager recording in a bedroom or the understated way we sing to ourselves in the shower. The lyrics focus on her place in the world, a self-affirmation of purpose. Tracks like the instrumental “Who I Am and Why I Am Where I Am” celebrate the gifts and treasures the world has bestowed upon her. When read together, The Kid‘s track titles form a poem or perhaps a morning mantra. The sentiment is mirrored by the celestial album artwork, showing Smith enraptured in ecstasy, just another particle amongst the stars. It’s exactly where she wants to be.