Young Magic's smoldering ambient-pop drifts into new sonic territories on Still Life.
One of the most buzzed-about tracks from Young Magic's debut LP Melt was "Night In the Ocean", an atmosphere-pooling, post-chillwave lullaby that glazed lead singer Melati Malay's voice in shockwaves of reverb before casting it out into empty space. There's not much to it lyrically, but the words that are there speak volumes about the group's genre-tilting aesthetic. Among a whirlpool of detached articles, hollow verbs, and half-rapped mumblings, two lone nouns stand out, the two nouns that are spotlighted in the title: "night" and "ocean". If you consider these words as sonic substances, you can get a sense of the primary musical elements included in the group's new album Still Life. Everything feels tinged in shadow, submerged, or wrapped in some confounding combination of water and pitch-black shade. As a listener, the album can have two, by no means mutually exclusive, effects; it can inter you beneath a swirling tide, deep enough that the sun fades from view, or usher you into a darkness so thick, encompassing, and far-reaching that it feels like water to the skin.
The globetrotting cross-culturalism of Melati Malay and Isaac Emmanuel's sound has been well-documented. Both multi-instrumentalists have a richly cosmopolitan sonic sensibility, incorporating Indonesian, West African, and other world music influences into their already complex, shoegaze-indebted production style. But this assessment misses an important point: Young Magic may be worldly songwriters, but their tracks are defined by an unmistakable otherworldliness. They move into strange new vistas -- far-off dreamscapes, shadowy rooms, depths of water that have no bottom -- rather than anchoring themselves to familiar ground. Without fail, these vistas are part "night" and part "ocean", enveloped by darkness that crests and falls in unyielding wave-patterns or blanketed by currents that carry Malay's vocal -- sometimes willingly, sometimes not -- into wide open water-worlds where light is nowhere to be found. Still Life isn't set in a place you've seen before. Or even heard about. It's in a dimension only utterable through ectoplasmic, indie-soul melodies, echoes clinging onto life, and drum loops suspended over some vacant oblivion.
"Lucien", for instance, is an ethereal electro-pop requiem replete with coughing percussion, trickling synthesizer droplets, and gushes of air that could be wind, breath, or wind blowing through Malay and taking her exhalations with it. It's haunting -- a story told to an empty room. The production work is spacious and meticulously layered, revealing a new sonic corner or vault of vocal intensity just when you think the track has leveled out and told all the secrets it's going to tell.
There are many vaults like this, junctures when Malay exits her own body, becomes nothing but a vaporous accretion of emotion-signifying color, and drifts off toward the track's non-existent edges. Often, she seems to be in multiple places at once. Or perhaps she's everywhere, and the track is nothing but her love-addled mind stretched out and electro-shocked free of its longings. "No, I don't / Mean to push you / When you have already spoken / When you have already spoken / Lucien / Oh, Lucien / So full of life," she sings, the already cryptic lyric rendered more cryptic through tiers of reverb, and when she lands on the word "life", takes it and tosses it into dissipating clouds of mist, a threshold opens before her: this "life", Lucien's life, is on the edge of a cliff, the spray of the sea kissing his forehead, and one wrong word or insinuation could send him down between its lips. For good reason, Malay treads carefully. The track seems to warn: sometimes it's better to pass through someone than to push them, to let them be rather than urge them to change.
If "Lucien" is precariously placed on a cliffside, then "Sleep Now" is willfully lost in the waters below. Composed of cascading voice-textures, tiptoeing-on-big-toes-alone drums, and a melody so angelic that it seems framed by stained glass, the track is unequivocally one of the more upbeat songs on Still Life, which isn't to say that there's happiness here, but just something warmer and more at-peace than what's foregrounded throughout the rest of the record. Yet it's also a perfect exemplar of Young Magic's approach on the LP. This is smoldering ambient-pop at its finest, a centrifugal reverse vortex of skyscraping synths, nonlinear lyrics, and fathoms-deep atmospheric excess.
In "Sleep Now", Malay is singing directly to her lover, but they seem to be drifting away together as well, flowing toward a predestined fate-endpoint that has been beckoning them since their relationship began. The instrumentation is drowsy and alert at the same time, both hypnagogic and vividly lucid. "Sleep now / Since you've had enough / Don't worry," Malay croons and, as she does, you can hear her guide her lover's head down to rest on her shoulder. They've been moving down this current for some time; if someone needs to sleep, someone needs to stay awake as well to keep them afloat. To that end, Malay keeps kicking for the both of them: "Sleep now / Sleep now / Sleep now," she repeats as the track concludes, the weight of her lover's body draped over her, his chin buried in her neck, his hands around her waist, and as his eyes flutter shut she realizes the enormity of the task ahead of her.
Its indulgent tendencies notwithstanding, Still Life is one of those rare records where the negative space in each track is almost as interesting as the sonic substance it surrounds. Interestingly, the production here is at its best when it deals with vaguenesses and blur-shapes, amorphous sound-figures and wisps of meaningless noise. "IWY", for example, excels precisely because it allows itself to lapse into immersive ambiguity. "I want(ed) you / I want(ed) you," Malay drones, the syllables beautifully converging and melding into a cloudburst of desire. "Homage", likewise, packs a punch because its melody seems to leap into an aural groundswell. These are tracks where what isn't said is just as important as what is, where silence and space signify -- and, indeed, conceal -- an entirely different world.