Twin Flames, the new solo album from Wintersleep’s Paul Murphy under the POSTDATA banner, is a rare and paradoxical combination in that it manages to be modestly epic, humbly grandiose, painting large screen technicolor romantic pictures by stealth. How he manages to do this might be the big trick of Twin Flames, although it’s by no means the only one. But you get a hint that something is afoot when you see that the album contains nine songs and clocks in at 32 minutes, while its first track is entitled “Haunts”, and its closer is called “Tombs”.
In between those ghostly markers, we get the emotional gamut as well as enormous musical variety. It’s an accomplished set of songs and simultaneously an exhilarating and enervating emotional experience. This is an album straight out of the Romantic playbook, which you might be right to see as a distinctly mixed blessing. In other words, while these are all honest-to-goodness love songs, they are also warnings about the perils, both for the lover and the love-object, of romantic obsession. It’s a bright and breezy pop album with a dark, dark heart.
The bookends of album opener “Haunts”, an echoing and clattering cautionary fairytale, and closing track “Tombs”, a Leonard Cohen nod that also gives off the damp ague of the grave, are a clever way of containing the bursting heart of seven songs that reside between them. “Haunts” serves as an overture of sorts, previewing melodies and lyrics that give you an idea of what is to come, without spoiling any of the album’s many surprises. Any album that begins with the following stanza should give the listener a clue that we’re about to enter a different world. We’re in a fairytale, but it’s distinctly Grimm: “Don’t go tripping through the wild woods / When there is a wolf right at your door / Don’t go looking for the false flags / You know it’s a friend who’ll cut you more.”
The overwhelming romantic intensity of the third track “Inside Out” (“I’m gonna love you ‘til I disappear / Yeah, you’re my queen”) is both affecting and frankly a little bit disturbing, perhaps laying bare a symptom of the obsessive cathexis that may be the worm at the heart of the rotten apple in which we have invested so much emotional energy since the dawn of romantic relationship time. But the strange thing is that it works both as a love song that will bowl you over at the same time that you think that a person might need to get a restraining order against someone who is threatening to “love you from the inside out.”
And yet, while songs like “Inside Out” may reveal that the love apple is rotten, they will also certainly create earworms that just won’t leave you alone, while they’ll also send you scurrying to identify their influences and resonances. Murphy clearly understands the pop canon inside out as well he’s probably seen his fair share of Dexter. On “Inside Out” alone there are probably a handful of musical Easter eggs, whether it be the falsetto backing vocals that recall the Beach Boys or the keyboard washes that seem to be lapping at our shores from the tides of a recent Phosphorescent album.
But the abiding unease created by the way in which Murphy performs this romantic highwire act over a canyon between the twin cliffs of gushing romantic love and its accompanying dangerous fixation keeps coming back to haunt us. The album’s third track, “Nobody Knows”, sounds like a classic pop melody (the opening acoustic guitar will remind you perhaps of George Michael’s “Faith”) sung with an open heart. But look more closely at the lyrics and you will find once again not necessarily a soft center but a potentially damaged one: “I’m good when the party is packed / I’m not good when there’s nobody left / I’m not good when I’m all by myself / I fear for my health, I fear for my health. / I’m not good when the dead day is done / I’m not good when the moon finally comes / I’m not good and to tell you the truth / It’s all because of you, it’s all because of you. / Nobody knows you’re mine”
To follow that with the stately and spare piano of “(I’m) Yours” might previously have seemed like it was just smart sequencing, and it certainly is that, but to follow “Nobody knows you’re mine” with a song that replaces one possessive pronoun with another just seems like another breadcrumb that is leading us inexorably toward the haunted house of love, and sure enough the lyric to “Yours” is no less potentially creepy than its predecessor: “I fear I’m disappearing / My love oh where do we begin? / My love is yours yes I’m yours / Our spirits interweaving
Hold on wherever you extend / My love is yours, yes I’m yours.”
The album’s title song follows, and it is perhaps here that we do reach the dark heart of proceedings, where we discover that the undying love professed by our protagonist is actually a grim(m) and reaping scythe, suffocating energy, twin flames that use up every bit of available oxygen: “In the endless night / I held you so tightly / Then more again tightly / Til there was nothing left. / Oh my love, my grief, my shame, the stars above me / We were never lost / We were only hiding / Waiting out the storm / Until there was nothing left / To say or be afraid of / Only love & breath.”
“Kissing” follows a similarly ambiguous script and “Behind You” comes across a little bit Lindsey Buckingham, jaunty and unhinged in equal measure. Indeed Buckingham, with some of his more catchy and outré contributions both to Fleetwood Mac and in his solo work, might be a useful touchstone for this set of songs.
Murphy seems to make the most of every available romantic trope and turn each of them into a double-edged sword. It’s a very smart tactic, whether it’s intentional or not, and you can’t help but feel that this is all very carefully calculated both to draw us in and creep us out so that we have to navigate our way through those twin flames and somehow manage to emerge unscathed. A simple phrase, something you might find in any workaday love song, put into Murphy’s hands, can turn into something sinister without you even realizing it, as the slow burn of “My Mind Won’t” chillingly reveals: “I don’t want to let you go / I don’t want to hear that sound / I can still feel your throat
Say the words out loud. / The words are meaningless / I don’t want to let you go / I don’t want to let you down / I just want to kiss your throat / Tear the feelings out.”
And as we come to the album’s closing track, “Tombs”, which, once you have suspected the album’s secret mission, suddenly feels like a murder ballad rather than a simple envoi. It’s a gorgeous song but it now feels haunted, and whereas one of the love song’s most insistent tropes has previously been repeated oaths of devotion, that repetition now feels like something else, as the song ends with the twinned repetitions of “Are you in this room?” and “Is my heart your tomb?” Over and over until death do us part.