These days, pop sounds quieter. The pandemic has become a time for artists to turn inwards: Strip down the noise and flair for something more reflective, austere. Taylor Swift switched out marching bands for cottagecore fairy tales. Lorde and Clairo replaced fluorescent synths with Laurel Canyon folk. Although its alt-rock singles stood out, Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR is composed mainly of ballads. And even with the rebrand of his comeback single, Ed Sheeran remains true to form, slow dancing his way to the heavens.
Remi Wolf exists outside this ecosystem. She’ll dedicate an entire song to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and incorporate the sound effects of a Spongebob Squarepants episode: dolphin squeals, broken glass, police sirens. (To The Line of Best Fit: “I think that I unintentionally got really inspired by kids shows and I just like the silliness of them and the colours and just the absurdity of them”). Her voice slinks from bright, elastic raps to soulful, full-bodied belting that realizes her ex-American Idol potential. Imagine if a late-era Frank Stella sculpture could dance, and you’d be halfway there to describing how her music feels.
On her debut album Juno, Wolf continues to be one of pop’s biggest partiers. “Guerrilla” is a frat-house bacchanal put on a Tilt-A-Whirl, keg-stand chants and chuckling synths zooming around in a blur until the lo-fi hangover blearily comes in. And like Kesha, last decade’s star of legendary debauchery, she veers towards the grotesque without a flinch. “I could move to Pasadena just to be a serial killer,” she swoons on “Sexy Villain”, its bassline so sludgy it could be lacquered with the blood of her victims. “Quiet on Set” also swerves from 0 to 100, going from new-age self-care in one line (“I just want to protect my energy”) to horror-movie raunch in the next (“Eatin’ my ass like the Human Centipede”). It’s woozy fun in the most nauseating way, as if glitter and vomit already meshed together on the floor of the recording studio.
More so than her previous EPs, Juno is a garish and zany funhouse of different genres. On “wyd”, she blends slot-machine synths, Doja Cat yelps, and a static-fried electric guitar into a medicated swirl. At half-speed, “Volkiano” could have been landfill bedroom pop in the same sleepy bossa nova-infused strain as “Surfaces”, but its sputtering horns and lava-bright harmonies are revitalizing. Towards the album’s end is “Sally”, which begins plaintive and minor as a mid-2000s rock song until Billy Joel piano keys chug in and the beat ping-pongs around into a frenetic jungle-like stutter. She doesn’t reinvent the wheel of her past discography so much as she expands it to greater, more joyous heights. Each song is couched in a sense of wonder and risk, like a child arriving at an amusement park for the first time, ready to hop on any and all rides.
Within the album’s frazzled technicolor energy, though, is Wolf’s approach to interiority. Her songwriting embraces hyperpop’s non sequitur chaos but also has the sensitivity of any acoustic confessional ballad at times. Despite its Rex Orange County sunniness, “Buzz Me In” is tinted with the blankness of heartbreak, Wolf desperate and alienated from herself: “I don’t wanna have control / ‘Cause lately, baby, I don’t know me anymore.” Just as emotionally numb is “Quiet on Set”, its depressive episode (“I ain’t leavin’ my bed / The work been killin’ me dead”) garbled in squeaky Fisher-Price funk.
On the other side of the emotional spectrum is “Buttermilk”, which churns with the anticipation of hope. “I got a feeling, I got a feeling that I can change,” she incants to pattering drums, willing herself forward towards growth. The message becomes all the more resonant when put in conversation with Wolf’s struggle for sobriety, the possibility for self-realization just within reach. It’s easy to get lost in the groove of Wolf’s music; perhaps you can find yourself there, too, and see the world in new bold colors.