Music

Pop Meets Soul Meets Experimentation in Sequoyah Murray's Debut

Photo: Courtesy of Thrill Jockey via Bandcamp

Atlanta's Sequoyah Murray has delivered one of the best albums of 2019 with his extraordinary debut Before You Begin.

Before You Begin
Sequoyah Murray

Thrill Jockey

13 September 2019

Intergenerational angst seems to be all the rage these days, with a certain subsection of older people incessantly complaining about how coddled younger people are and a coalition of younger people simply deciding to respond to everything older people say with a dismissive "OK Boomer" tweet. Of course, all of this is based on pointless generalization, and you don't have to look that hard to find examples of positive inter-generational intersection.

All of which is to say that anybody who would dismiss Sequoyah Murray's full-length debut album, the extraordinary Before You Begin, simply because Murray is just 22 years old, would be missing out on one of the most creative and intriguing albums that anyone of any age has released in 2019.

Murray grew up as part of a musically inclined family in Atlanta, Georgia. His family, as well as Atlanta's rap and jazz scenes, were key early influences. Before You Begin could be categorized in several ways: techno-pop, progressive soul, alternative, something else entirely. It doesn't matter what you call it though; Before You Begin exists in a realm in which categories don't matter.

Before You Begin resists a simple definition. Still, it can be described as a collection of creatively written and arranged pop songs with a warm, soulful feel, but also some distinctly new wave touches played on a combination of electronic and acoustic instruments. There is just a lot going on here, and it takes a few listens for it all to sink it. Before You Begin is worth the trip.

Murray doesn't make the entry point easy for listeners, opening Before You Begin with a sustained operatic note and some murmured lyrics before the first proper song, "I Wonder" begins. "I Wonder" is dark pop, with an instrumental track built from digitally manipulated vocals of his sister singing medieval chants. Next up is "Sublime", an electropop gem that might remind listeners of Prince's "Delirious" and early Depeche Mode simultaneously.

These first tunes don't quite prepare the listener for the fourth track, the mesmerizing "Blue Jays". Murray mixes electronic keyboards and percussion with a viola to weave a haunting backdrop for a short set of lyrics that culminate in "I'm not afraid of someone who could be / I'm not afraid at all, I'm not afraid." The evocative video that accompanies "Blue Jays" sheds extra light on the song's implied theme of a child having and accepting a vision of their future self. However, "Blue Jays", which builds to an ever-ascending level of intensity before a quiet fade-away, is perfectly compelling on its own.

Other reviews and publicity pieces have noted the influence of Arthur Russell on Before You Begin, which is helpful if you know about Russell's work. I admit I did not. Still, some rewarding research revealed that the late Russell was a singer/songwriter/composer/cellist who was as comfortable with modern classical music as he was with disco. Though his work did not meet with commercial success in his lifetime, Russell's music has found a following in the decades since his passing in 1992. Russell's admirers include Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) and James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem), and Tracey Thorn (Everything but the Girl), as well as Sequoyah Murray.

The influence of Russell on Before You Begin is apparent, but as you listen to the album you may find that it evokes a dizzying array of artists, including, but not limited to, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Kronos Quartet, Philip Glass, Boy George, George Michael, Depeche Mode, Thomas Dolby, Yaz, and others. No matter who else comes to mind, though, Murray emerges from his many influences as an artist with his own distinct 21st-century creative vision.

For as experimental as Before You Begin can be, there is also a delightful pop sensibility that shines through. The title track, which closes the album, is a perfect example. The jaunty music and at least some of the lyrics – "You begin, to take another step forward / Begin to see the image of yourself, yeah" – could easily be the song that you see in every Disney movie montage in which friendships are forged, and life lessons are learned. "Before You Begin" is more emotionally complex than that, but the fact that the song can't hide its inner "Hakuna Matada" ends the album on a joyful note.

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