“Abject pop.” That’s what Alyssa Midcalf, recording under the name Primer, calls her music. Buoyant beats mixed with lyrics that confront life’s harsh realities – it’s not exactly a new approach in pop music, but some certainly do it better than others. Midcalf, who released her first Primer album – Novelty – in 2019, crafted a gauzy, occasionally impenetrable sound on that debut. Now, with Incubator, the sound is a bit more approachable but still layered enough to sound fresh with each new listen.
Co-produced by Noah Prebish (Psymon Spine), Incubator is so titled because many of the songs began life in Midcalf’s late teens and have evolved. Over a robotic new wave beat and keening synth lines, the opening track, “Impossible Thoughts”, addresses the difficulties of growing up in a changing world under the weight of perceived expectations. “Feels like I’m being brainwashed,” Midcalf sings over a thumping dance beat. “It’s becoming an impossible thought / A big machine, and I’m a cog / Never stop; it’s never enough.” Likewise, in the bouncy 1980s synthpop throwback “Just a Clown”, Midcalf sings of artistic self-doubt and acceptance: “I can’t believe / It has come to this / I’m just a clown / And I’ll never win.”
It’s not all bright, sonically up-tempo bangers, though. Midcalf also delves into more musically introspective moments as well, as on the ethereal, downbeat “Things Fall Apart”, the synth-drenched quasi-shoegaze “You”, and even the multidimensional “Anything”. That last track begins as a sobering slab of retro torch song balladry that recalls vintage Alison Moyet before the beats kick in and Midcalf brings the crowd back to the dancefloor.
One of Incubator’s finest moments is “Hypercube”, arguably the gleaming centerpiece of Incubator. Opening with percussive cacophony and a propulsive synth sequence, a lightning-fast tempo carries the song along as a dizzying array of sonic treats are thrown around as if Midcalf and Prebish are going for broke – tossing all manner of riffs, hooks, and keyboard squalls at the wall (as Midcalf sings “Let it go, let it go”). Fortunately, it all sticks, particularly the odd but oddly satisfying ambient segment that closes out the song.
Incubator closes on a positive, reflective note with the catchy, upbeat “Warning”. According to the album’s press notes, Midcalf describes the songs as “a celebration of the end of a toxic relationship…a grand finale to the record and to a years-long cycle of pain and anguish”. Over layers of synths and a chugging dance beat, Midcalf is at peace with herself: “I’m living my life alone / I’m on my own now / And I’ll keep it to myself, but I don’t want to / ‘Cause I’m never gonna feel that way for you again.”
Egghunt Records has been on a roll for the past couple of years, putting out stunning singer-songwriter albums from the likes of Thin Lear (Wooden Cave), Lizzie Loveless (You Don’t Know), and Alyssa Gengos (Mechanical Sweetness). With Primer’s Incubator, the label adds another unique artist to its roster. These are songs full of heartbreak and hurt, but also freedom and maturity. And plenty of hooks.