A strange and melancholy work, Vanessa Daou’s Plutonium Glow (1998) was the first of her independent efforts, following her two major-label releases on MCA Records. Sidelined from a commercial market that couldn’t (wouldn’t?) accommodate her imaginative designs, it’s understandable the singer-songwriter might have been experiencing a sense of isolation during the recording of her third LP.
Daou willingly negotiated out of her record contract with MCA. A change in the label’s staff signaled the writing on the wall; what was once a fruitful and creative atmosphere for her musical pursuits was now, possibly, under threat. To go it alone, however, still begets feelings of remoteness. Daou seemed to find parallels to her predicament in the unlikeliest sources: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 classic children’s novel, The Little Prince.
The singer wasn’t new to mining from sources outside of music; her 1995 debut, Zipless, used Erica Jong’s poetry as the basis for her lyrics, and her sophomore follow-up, 1996’s Slow to Burn, was an album based on the lives of her various muses, including Camille Claudel, Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. By 1997, Daou was looking to the stars, and Saint-Exupéry’s classic proved an unusual and challenging foundation for building her narratives.
Forced to acclimate to a routine that no longer involved major-label head honchos, Vanessa and her then-husband, producer Peter Daou, got down to work quickly, drafting Plutonium Glow with the aid of technology more primitive than the kinds they had been previously afforded. Whereas Zipless and Slow to Burn explored various downtempo styles based on jazz fingerings and modern blues, Plutonium Glow opted for electronic influences that ramped up the BPMs. House, drum n’ bass, nu-jazz, and leftfield techno featured amongst Daou’s mainstay of downtempo and jazz. The retro-electro feel of Plutonium Glow meant that Peter’s production often dipped into early ‘90s rave culture, which pushed the album beyond Daou’s usual bedroom-listening exploits and onto the dancefloor.
Lyrically, the album is wistful and provocative, as elegiac as it is flirtatious. Daou intones narratives of loneliness and isolation, but they are delivered oddly at angles that express desires pointedly carnal. She keeps Saint-Exupéry’s story at the heart of the album, a theme that radiates emotional ripples through the electronic throb of the drum machines and synthesizers. Alternately sung and spoken, Daou’s poetry relates stories of being lost in space, searching for her home, and searching for love. Meanwhile, her sensual curiosities provoke a series of encounters that are intimate and personal or distantly lustful.
In The Little Prince, a child prince travels alone from planet to planet, lost and searching for his home. He comes to Earth, in the Sahara Desert, where a pilot, a grown man, has crash-landed. The two become friends, and the prince tells the pilot strange stories of all the places he has visited. After being stranded in the desert for many days, the loneliness begins to weigh on the child, and his desire to return home suggests a possible end to his life.
Plutonium Glow isn’t as tragic as the story that inspired it, but Daou repurposes that narrative to induce a similar sense of fey moodiness that permeates the 14 numbers on the album. What the singer especially taps into, regarding Saint-Exupéry’s novel, is an aura of mystery that touches upon her feelings of alienation in life and love.
The lyrics that overlap on the opening number, “Alive”, are eerily entwined with cryptic verses that detail emotions abstractedly: “I am the Universe (I’m free as a bird)/ A strange machine digging in the dirt (But who does it hurt?)/ Thunder rolls, but no one listens…I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive, but I’m cold inside.” Like hot breath in cold air, the poem evaporates almost before it can even reach the ears; it seems even more ephemeral when it is swallowed up by the huge sound of the pulsing, midtempo beat and a synthesizer that echoes like the thunder Daou sings about. Not especially worried about easing the listener into more comfortable apertures of sound and feeling, Daou allows the weirdness of the song to demarcate between those who wish to explore her musical nebula and those who simply wish to leave her universe.
The shuffles of drum n’ bass, until then a new element in Daou’s music, edge into the following numbers, “Make Believe” and “Peculiar”. The former, a Milt Jackson-esque electro-lounger, hiccups along with a fractured rhythm. In it, Daou sings of fantasies created at will, desires made real by the simple act of a wish. The latter has the singer cooing an unsettling set of Taoist stanzas over an eerie, halfway-to-house-by-way-of-breakbeat groove. “The hurt before the wound/ the scream before the fall/ the damned and the praised/ I’ve known them all…”
The atmospheres are thick and rich with dark mystery, and they saturate these musical entries like the gaseous ethers surrounding distant planets. Producer Peter, a trained jazz pianist, employs a style that merges his jazz fingerings with the spacey, ambient leanings of techno minimalism; his keyboard work renders these numbers with the kind of descants that fall in line with his training but reach for the imaginative quarters that electronic music has offered him on all of his work with then-wife, Vanessa. His production techniques also allow for some interesting percussive elements to enter the mix like in “Back to the World”.
A slow, robust ballad etched with a warped sitar line and the curious swells of sampled percussion (gongs echoing faintly in the stratospheres, the jingle of multiple keys on a ring), “Back to the World” is one of several tracks that pointedly reference Saint-Exupéry’s novel: “In the black, black night of timeless space/ I found a way to leave this place/ To the quintessential landscape in my dreams/ Where I understand what all things mean.”
The trials of the child prince and his infinite desire to find his way back home are further surveyed in “Life on a Distant Star” and “Zero G”. Both numbers explore the more unusual facilities of the synthesizer. A laid-back groove featuring a soft and plush bassline, “Life on a Distant Star” is banded with the occasional slivers of synthesized melody that slice through the number like the shafts of moonlight. Daou’s lyric, delivered in a voice of melted gold, parallels her struggles with love to the experiences of the child prince: “There’s fire on the mountain/ But it’s just another sun/ The Earth is next to nothing/ On the horizon.”
“Zero G” is a song of emotional disorientation. An insistent and anxious beat evokes feelings of panic, a sense of struggle which refers, again, to the themes of being lost and helpless in Saint-Exupéry’s story. But Daou’s warm and relaxed delivery, and her resolute claim that she is unbothered by the feelings of weightlessness, suggest otherwise. The curiously-titled “Lightening”, which also references its homonym “lightning”, is a slip of a song that pulses threateningly for its bare two-minute length. Once more, the thematic adjacency to The Little Prince surfaces, detailing the dangers of the little boy’s travels through space.
A subtle change in dynamics near the album’s midpoint shifts it out of the moody and luxurious comforts of the bedroom and onto the dancefloor. Daou’s proclivities for erotic fantasy (best observed in her debut, Zipless) take hold of her for a few numbers in Plutonium Glow, combining her wonderments of the galaxies with sensual, earthly pleasures. “Mouth to Mouth”, “Cherries in the Snow”, and ‘How Far” each refer to a funk influence that has turned up on the singer’s various efforts, and they give these numbers the sinewy muscle of demanding rhythms and supple basslines.
“Mouth to Mouth”, perhaps Daou’s most brazen call to the fleshly delights of the body, vibrates heavily with the cadences of hip-hop. Its low-end bass grinds lasciviously against the singer’s asphyxiated sighs; meanwhile, the skewed slide of a strutting, funk-inflected melody puts one in mind of a ‘70s blaxploitation film. The striking imagery of the evocatively-titled “Cherries in the Snow” further plies the funk influence for a lustrous twist on R&B. Sly organ swells and the shimmering frost of ambient keyboards ground the song in the matters of the Earth; a soothing, though always provocative respite from the spacier exploits of Plutonium Glow.
When the carnal matters reach fever-pitch, as they do on the title track and “How Far”, they are propelled with the unabashed rhythms of house music. Daou sings a simple but chilling poem on the title track about plutonium’s toxic glow and dazzling display of light, which attracts, much like the chemistry between lovers. All the while, the clatter of some alien metal circles around in the lunar ambiance. Peter’s feather-touch keyboard work finds a gleaming pop-hook that emerges on the number like cosmic dust drifting in the weightlessness of outer space.
“How Far” proffers a similar impression of an adrenaline-rushed groove, the throb of its house rhythm pumping beneath a lyric of orbits and rockets. Here, synthesizers appropriate the strange, sonic mechanizations of the Doppler effect that ripples across the atmospheres of the song.
Daou’s coolly-mannered, thoughtful, and thought-provoking poetry is afforded generous room in her albums. Her spoken-word pieces are indeed what has distinguished her from other like-minded artists who explore the turfs of electronic music. Three of the most beguiling numbers on Plutonium Glow utilize her talents in spoken word and provide further context for her metaphysical examinations on love and loneliness.
A thick, flexing guitar riff supplies “Flower of My Fears” with funky urgency and raw texture. Dotted with the glimmers of a vibraphone that chimes over the slams of hip-hop drums, Daou lays down a verse of supernatural persuasion. The elliptic verses on “Truth Remains” intersect with designs that are at once systematic and dizzying; over quickstepping drums and a hi-hatting jazz riff, Daou relates an ideology of a woman stripping down to a mystic core within her domestic reality. Her poetry, spoken in the same tones of murmuring lovers, touches the marrows of both the animal and the spiritual.
The singer’s most affecting exploit of her spoken-word talents on the album is delivered on the closing number, “Red Dawn”. A peculiar and moving examination of the spiritually fallen, the singer again takes the vicarious position as the Little Prince, soaring through the skies above the Earth and looking down on the troubled humans below. As desolate as it is intimate, “Red Dawn” augments its poetry of solitude and sadness with the strums of a lone guitar and a heavy balletic beat.
“High over winding roads and empty streets/ And lonely houses filled with soldiers and debutantes/ With lovers and losers/ Teachers and hoarders/ Players and cheaters/ Healers and doubters/ Heroes and hustlers/ And in everything I see chaos/ And in everything order…” Daou sings. The number ends on a sparse trail of notes, like the scattering of a few stars. The suggestion is made clear that the lone journey for both Daou and the little boy will be unending.
Plutonium Glow was initially released in 1997 by Handprint Entertainment and sold exclusively through the internet. This album version included a song called “Visions of You”. The album was later re-released domestically in 1998 on Oxygen Music, featuring a different track order. On the newer version, the voluptuous sway of “Visions of You” was also switched out for the more cosmic and, therefore, thematically aligned “Alive”. The album’s essence remains intact on both versions, but the tones slightly differ between the two.
The 1997 release emanates a sense of hope and triumph in the search for self. The 1998 version reviewed here is one of plaintive acquiescence; it tenders a sense of danger and loss that accompanies anyone who must go it alone in their journey for self-fulfillment. Daou, who has remained an independent artist since the release of this album, has explored various stylistic and emotional reaches in her music over these past 25 years. Still, none of her albums – not even her watershed moment that is Zipless – have captured the impressions of personal and professional predicament with such imaginative flair. Indeed, Plutonium Glow surveys a life of otherworldly entwinement, where a woman who wishes for spiritual transcendence finds a kindred soul in a lost and lonely boy searching the galaxies for home.