Ambient noise opens ODESZA‘s latest album, The Last Goodbye. Disembodied voices, some children, greet listeners as the first track, “This Version of You”, starts. It’s a slightly disorienting feeling. The listener isn’t sure where she is. A school? A playground? A train station? An orchestra pushes the voices away, and a prominent voice intones, “This version of you.” As the person continues to talk, a monotone, saying, “Simply becomes real / And you’re right here with this version of you / To see things as they really are.” The voices of the children haunt the song (we can hear a mother ask her kid, “can you say ‘I love you’?” and the child answers, “I can’t!”), and a mournful piano keeps in time with the voice. The song is moving and thoughtful with vocals by Julianna Barwick, reciting the lyrics which seek to split an identity into two. The sweeping tune is reminiscent of Lana Del Ray‘s elegiac “Video Games” as it nears a glorious crescendo of swirling synths, swelling strings, and cooing vocals.
It’s a very striking way for ODESZA to return to headlining a studio LP. Their last album was 2017’s A Moment Apart, though, in 2020, the duo released a self-titled album as Bronson, a collaborative project with Golden Features. It’s a masterful return because The Last Goodbye is a fantastic record that conjures feelings of lilting emotion. It’s a dance record that both looks forward and looks back: it sounds like an ODESZA record (they don’t abandon their sound), but there are exciting innovations and experimentation on the tracks, mainly when the duo use their guest artists to heighten the emotional power and sonic invention of the music.
The album’s first single, the title track, is an excellent example of the musical innovation taking place on The Last Goodbye. Though soul legend Bettye LaVette is credited as a featured artist, the song heavily features a sample of her 1965 hit “Let Me Down Easy”. The song takes what’s already a great record and creates something new and exciting, finding new poignancy. The original record is a meditative 1960s soul number that sports a moody string and a great groove. LaVette’s voice is a husky force of nature, although on “Let Me Down Easy” is relatively subdued, with the soul diva relying more on her inimitable phrasing than on her vocal power. The lyrics – penned by Wrecia Holloway – is a torch song that beseeches mercy from a wayward lover. “Let Me Down Easy” is a plea from LaVette to her man, a plea that when he leaves her, he does so with compassion. “When you pass me by,” she sings, “say hello once in a while.”
One of the lyrics of “Let Me Down Easy”, reads, “It’s all over but the last goodbye”, which links the soul class to the ODESZA single that takes its title from the line. ODESZA takes LaVette’s vocals from the nifty 1960s production and implants it into a sweeping, orchestral setting. The vocals aren’t immaculately scrubbed from their vinyl settings; instead, we hear the slight crispiness of its age, as if LaVette is floating through a 1960s radio. There’s a slight jauntiness to the original song that belies the pain in the song’s lyrics and LaVette’s performance. ODESZA pull that briskness away and instead finds the pain in the track and LaVette’s voice. That’s the moving power of synthpop: A great synth ballad can be unbearably touching and sad. Resurrecting LaVette’s voice and setting it in another context is yet another way of bridging a pop past with a pop present.
Dance music has a history of coronating legendary singers as dance divas. Dusty Springfield, Candi Staton, Liza Minnelli, Shirley Bassey, Tammy Wynette, Eartha Kitt have all been reimagined as club queens when collaborating with dance musicians. ODESZA mine this practice and engage with LaVette’s particular legend and legacy. When “The Last Goodbye” breaks away from its sweeping ballad introduction to a loopy dance track, LaVette’s voice becomes part of the intricate production; there’s a tension as her very human voice becomes synthetic and part of the instrumentation. She’ll never be an anonymous, blank sound – that glorious buzzsaw rasp is unforgettable – but that voice is sometimes rendered as a sample to seesaw its way through the club track.
The use of the LaVette sample on “The Last Goodbye” serves as a reminder of just how creative ODESZA are. There are other equally fantastic feats of artistic triumph on The Last Goodbye that are worth highlighting. The single “Wide Awake” is a bracing pop song featuring Charlie Houston’s lovely vocals. “Wide Awake” is an excellent contrast to “The Last Goodbye”, and it speaks to dance music’s evolution when it comes to the Dance Diva trope. From the 1970s to the 1990s, house and dance music that featured female vocals was widely known for large-voiced divas (often their voices were informed by the church). But post-millennial dance music has seen a different kind of dance diva, one who doesn’t have the gospel-reared wail like a Martha Wash. Instead, we hear ethereal, dreamy croons of singers like Charlie Houston. Her voice raises the stakes on a song like “Wide Awake” that feels radio-ready but still has a bruised poignance due to its star’s pretty and vulnerable singing. The melancholy of Houston’s voice lends the song a wan, resigned feel, despite the rushed, driving club beat.
Though “Wide Awake” would easily find a home on pop radio, even more pop-tastic is the delicious “Forgive Me”, a midtempo number that pairs ODESZA with Izzy Bizu. “Forgive Me” stands out not just because of its sparkling excellence but also because it feels like a concerted effort to nimbly step outside the introspective synthy dance music of the album and to reach out to the top 40. The song is a sweet, candy-coated empowerment-pop ditty. Bizu’s voice is appealingly sweet, with a light brushing of fuzz (think a poppier Macy Gray or Michelle Williams from Destiny’s Child). Izzy Bizu is an utterly charming and enticing presence and threatens to overshadow ODESZA and the rest of the artists on The Last Goodbye with her delightful charisma and star power.
Their versatility shines when ODESZA shift away from radio pop to the spiritual. On the urgent “Love Letter” featuring the Knocks, ODESZA injects a moment of dramatic power. Stately pianos, sampled gospel vocals, and a heavy industrial soundscape propel the song forward. “Love Letter” is a transcendent moment on The Last Goodbye as the tune reaches a pure moment of euphoria (the strings on the track are absolutely gorgeous).
Similarly passionate is the intense “Behind the Sun”, which like “The Last Goodbye”, finds its power by dressing up a sampled vocal with studio effects. This time, ODESZA reimagine Iranian singer Simin Ghanem’s “Sib”. “Behind the Sun” is a cinematic, athematic song that derives its majesty from Ghanem’s glorious chants, which climb the grand heights of the track, transporting the listeners to a soundscape that evokes feelings of grandeur and splendor.
When listening to The Last Goodbye and going through all of the emotions, tones, and colors created by ODESZA, it’s impressive just how diverse and wide-ranging their record is; there are moments of elysian pop, broody angst, thrilling dance, and smart wit. Despite the different moods set by the songs, The Last Goodbye feels complete and intact as a project. It’s a major achievement for an act rightly celebrated for being one of dance music’s most talented practitioners.
It’s a testament to ODESZA’s smarts and on-point instincts that in closing an excellent record like The Last Goodbye, that they choose the elegant and humane “Light of Day” which moves steadily on a regular beat and a bouncing synth. As Ólafur Arnalds croons sadly, the strings grow and expand, adding to the resigned grace of the track. The programmed beats gradually give way to an orchestra that not only wraps up the song but the album. It’s a fitting end to an album that does so much emotional work.