In Long Way Home, Låpsley weaves a rich, multi-layered sonic fabric from sound bites of errant longing
The cover art of Long Way Home depicts Låpsley in an embittered stare down with empty space: head tilted back ever-so-slightly, her gaze charges into the same vast whiteness that seems to envelop her body, the angles and shadows of her face all converging into the laser-point longitude tunneled out from her retinas. It's as if this gaze has somehow assumed a sentience of its own, compelling her features -- eyes, nose, lips, chin -- to follow it into the monochromatic void staring back at them. It's an instructive image, for Long Way Home isn't so much about the act of gazing as it is about gazes themselves, disconnected from the subjects they emanate from and given fleeting melodic form.
Throughout the record, Låpsley weaves a rich, multi-layered sonic fabric from sound bites of longing -- errant mutterings, revolving echoes, cryptic flights of imagination -- that seem to emerge, not from Låpsley herself, but from the open air that surrounds her. By processing, distorting, and etherealizing her own words to the point that they seem to issue from multiple bodies apart from her own, she creates a richly dimensionalized mosaic of strangers' voices reaching out to one another for help - reaching out, that is, searching the barren rooms they occupy for sympathy and comfort, but ultimately never making contact. Left to themselves, these strangers continue to gaze out into the album's negative space, waiting for the lovers that abandoned them but only finding the sheer fact of their solitude. In this way, they become what preoccupies them: gazes, without flesh, blood, or shape, wisps of disembodied longing that cannot be traced back to any specific individual. It is to Låpsley's credit that she is able to capture these wisps and convert them into tendrils of disappearing-as-they-appear melodic ruminations.
Yet these ruminations make up only one component of Låpsley's already crystallizing aesthetic, and it's an aesthetic of many sides. Harmonized vocal arrangements, sub-zero synth flourishes, maudlin piano, and barely-there, minimalist percussion all mark her unique brand of ambient pop-R&B, which tiptoes precariously between James Blake's ghost-ballad vaporizations and the xx's spacious, indie-pop melancholia. However, the most obvious sonic analogue to point to here, and it has been pointed out before, is Adele. Without ambiguity, Låpsley's voice dips in and out of fathoms with an Adele-like conviction, plummeting down only to realize the potentiality of soaring back up. Both sing with the physical qualities of the stomach, throat, and mouth emphatically present, and when they latch onto certain note-vitalities, they allow them to grow behind their lips -- to gestate and race through evolutionary stages -- before launching them out into extracorporeal space to spread out and dissolve.
Låpsley, it should be said, sounds demonstrably younger than her vocal counterpart, but this is not to argue that Long Way Home is simply a pseudo-modernized re-release of Adele's debut 19. No, instead, this is a different 19, renamed, reincarnated. It is authored by a 19-year-old, as Adele's 19 was, but this 19 is closer to shadow than light; the Adele-figure that sings and writes and hurts-before-your-eyes in Long Way Home is perhaps the protagonist from "Chasing Pavements", but now she's answered the song's reduplicated question: "Should I give up? / Or should I just keep chasing pavements?" Yet she hasn't given up as she should have done. Instead, she has become a wanderer, continuously drifting down vacant street-worlds with the amorphous yet imperishable hope that she will turn a corner and find her lover waiting in lamplight. He's never there though, and the darkness his absence signifies is the darkness this 19 walks straight into without regard for its own well-being. Just as Adele feared, these chased-down pavements "lead nowhere", and it is this futility of action -- moving but not arriving, looking but not seeing -- that completely saturates the audio-geography of Long Way Home.
Indeed, Adele's best moments, lyrically and vocally, are those moments when she confronts emotional adversity but overcomes it. You can hear these confrontations both across the duration of her songs and in the individual notes she extrapolates within them. Låpsley, on the other hand, excels precisely when she allows this adversity to get the best of her, when she surrenders to the temptations of despondency and quarantines herself from any chance at salvation. Adele triumphs -- or, at least, attempts to triumph -- over heartache; Låpsley always succumbs to it. She strands herself in twilight zones somewhere indeterminately between emotional rupture and recovery, writing songs, not to climb out of these zones, but to wrap herself up in their mise-en-scène.
You can hear this distinction most clearly in her nouvo-disco retelling of Adele's "Hello", a standout track entitled "Operator (He Doesn't Call Me)". While "Hello" foregrounds a cathartic reconnection between lovers stranded in separate realities, the "other side" and this other side's opposite, "Operator" renders this reconnection impossible. Its protagonist occupies a world where this "other side" is the only side there is. In "Hello", Adele is able to break through to someone she thought would never answer; she dials, hears someone stirring on the other end of the line, and explains herself. "Hello from the other side / I must've called a thousand times," she sings, but we are only privy to this call, the answered call. What did those other thousand calls consist of? What motivated each one? Did Adele leave her ex-lover any voicemail and, if so, what words did she leave behind? If this ex-lover picked up, would she have said something different - some different variation of "Hello" -- depending on which of these thousand calls it was? "Operator" is one of these calls, pushed to the edges of Adele's subconscious but resurrected by Låpsley, who turns it into a bouncy, Donna Summer-esque dance-pop exchange with an operator who may or may not become a future lover.
Through this lens, Long Way Home could be heard as an electro-pop curation of various phone calls -- from Låpsley, Adele, or any other woman who has been left with seven digits instead of a lover -- that remain unanswered and so, in effect, exist only as lingering potentialities. Each song seems to give sonic form to a "Hello" that doesn't make it through the receiver: Hello, this is what I would like to say to you if you pick up; Hello, this is the pain I'll tell you about if you pick up; Hello, this is what I've been thinking about while I've been waiting for you to pick up, but you haven't picked up yet, so these thoughts are now becoming darker, colder, more despairing. Take "Cliff", another album highlight. The track's simple synthpop instrumentation breaks down at several points and seems to be overcome by snippets of vocalized melancholy. "Separate / Separate / Separate," someone repeats, as if "separate" is a mantra that reminds her that she needs to extricate this "boy without a name" from her memory, but then some other voice calls out "Bury Me!", which is most likely the voice from the LP's other masochistic screed "Hurt Me" -- or is it? Is it not fair to think that this is a different woman, waiting desperately on the "other side" of the line, letting ring after ring pass through her ears, who, after realizing her lover won't be answering, wishes to be put of her misery and interred alone?
The track's second breakdown, occurring just after the 3:15 mark, is the sound of this interment. With another cry of "Bury Me!", Låpsley's ciphered vocal descends into an open grave, but strangely it keeps descending without interruption, never hitting the ground. This sensation, falling-but-never-finding-earth, bodies forth the bottomless longing that permeates the rest of the album, that feeling you get when it's clear that no amount of calling will change a thing.
Long Way Home's best tracks, whether it's the lullaby-lament of "Station" or the magical realism of "Painter", all revolve around the same futile post-breakup desires that refuse to dissipate no matter how much you want them to. Moving forward, it will be a challenge for Låpsley to expand her thematic palette and to try out new vantage points, characters, and sonic formulas. But, for now, she's created an unimpeachably well-crafted debut -- something to gaze at, even if it is just a sequence of gazes itself.