It seems everything we’ve heard about Miami is true if we are to believe Steven A. Clark. The Miami-based alt-R&B artist named his latest album Where Neon Goes to Die, a label for Miami Beach borrowed from Lenny Bruce, and about the most succinct description for the city — at least as it’s depicted in Clark’s music — one could ever hope to come up with. There are beaches, there is glitz, there is glamour, and there are plenty of parties, but there is also old money, there are complacent retirees, there is an undercurrent of sadness and loneliness always threatening to bubble to the surface. If you’ve ever watched a movie or a television show set in Miami, you’ve probably gotten a sense of its shiny topcoat and the more stark reality that the topcoat tends to hide. Steven A. Clark gives us a look at a Miami where the shine is present, but the darkness beneath is the main attraction.
Take “Easy Fall”, which sounds for all the world like a simple love song ripped from the ’80s with arpeggiated synths eventually giving way to some Frank Ocean-style chord wash and slow tempos. There are two parallel tales of love won and lost, one sung by Clark and one by soul songstress Gavin Turek. The emphasis here is on the “lost”, where all good things quickly and messily come to their respective ends. The chorus asks “Why is it so easy to fall / It’s way too easy to fall / To fall in love”, and it’s telling that the emphasis (both in that chorus and in the title) is on the word “fall”. “Did I Hurt U”, a collaboration with Denzel Curry, is even darker, a kiss-off anthem where it’s never clear that love was ever involved. Clark quickly details the red flags and obvious flaws in a past relationship, eventually giving way to Curry, who in his blunt way details his failings while paying half-hearted lip service to wanting more (but maybe not really wanting more).
Even quicker tempos don’t let all that much light in. “Feel This Way” is a pretty straightforward disco-R&B track — the catchiest thing on the album, really — that actually does offer genuine love and affection, though it evokes such classic motifs as autumn and a wilting rose to do so. When Clark sings “We’ll never feel this way again”, it’s tough to parse whether he’s expressing joy or regret. Similarly, “Found” is an ode to an unattainable other, a song that lives in the moment just before you open your mouth to someone you’re interested, which is sort of adorable at first, but it moves slowly to stalker-ish in the amount of time it admires the object of its affections without actually saying anything.
To be sure, Clark sure sounds like he’s struggling with something throughout Where Neon Goes to Die, whether it be communication, infidelity, or the conflicts in his own head. Happily, the album is bookended by purity, two odes to love and family that at least offer a center for Clark to return to as he grapples with all his chaos.
“Maria, Under the Moon”, which opens the album, is a pretty little love song that also happens to be a family affair: his uncle helped write it, and his brother plays guitar on it. His uncle has sadly since passed, lending an air of melancholy to its presence on the album, but the song itself is just pure love and beauty. Likewise, closer “What Can I Do” is an ode to the mother who stuck around when his father left. “You’re my momma, and you deserve the world,” he sings over a steady beat, pianos, and the occasional gospel choir punctuation.
By sticking these tracks on either end, Clark shows us that he knows what’s truly important in his life, even as the vices of the city he calls home close in.
Performance-wise, Clark is a little bit Frank Ocean, a little bit Bruno Mars, a little bit the Weeknd, but a little rougher around the edges than any of those particular contemporaries. He slides into his notes, some of his verses sound like words on top of words, and he spends a lot of time beefing up his sound by doubling up his vocal with an octave. That said, there’s a lived-in appeal to his voice that’s a novelty in an artist so young. He never sounds like he’s trying too hard, he never sounds like he’s pushing beyond his capability. He’s just telling his stories through his songs.
That’s probably why a look at Where Neon Goes to Die is bound to spend so much time on its subject matter rather than its sound. Its sound is slightly glossy, slightly greasy ’80s pop with a modern R&B twist. Sometimes you can dance to it; mostly it’s just for listening to and feeling. What you feel is Miami, a city that sleeps but never turns off, a city that can’t find a lot of natural light underneath all that neon. Still, it’s home. That most certainly counts for something.