Blondie’s “Shayla” — a song Jeremy Jay has now covered twice — embodies a tension between bounded earthiness, the particular, the everyday life of work and meals and TV, and, immanent within it but not of it, a transcendent dimension. (Often, but not always, this transcendence comes about through romantic love.) Either pole can manifest as a kind of deindividuation (assembly-line in the first case, blissful union in the second) or as an expression of the contingent and idiosyncratic. This distinction, narrated more or less successfully, is a classic paradigm of indie pop, but sometimes it’s literally embodied within a particular voice and vision. Such a voice is Jay’s.
Dream Diary is a more synth-heavy piece than 2010’s Splash (and one more cleanly produced than his earlier work), though it’s still replete with ringing acoustic chords and electric fills. Jay’s sound is distinctive without being derivative, and, with the use of electronic elements on this album (by no means a complete novelty in his oeuvre), that element becomes more so. Jay has the fragility, beauty, and occasional majesty of any of the Sarah Records roster, without the frustratingly cultivated naiveté or humorlessness.
While Jay’s voice retains its characteristic quaver of uncertainty, it seems truer, and the lyrics show more depth and complexity than some of his more relationship-naïf earlier moments. There’s a new consistency to his songwriting, but in terms of continuity, particular concerns are clearly being elaborated upon; the stunning yet low-key version of “Shayla” — bringing out both the pathos and the otherworldly quality of the original while imbuing it with a distinguishing swing — is a reworking of the same cover appearing on the semi-unofficial 2009 CD-R version of the Love Everlasting single, while the “dream diary kids” mentioned on Splash’s “Just Dial My Number” have their own song here.
Indeed, as if Jay were Gary Wilson’s good twin, one gets the sense of a private universe of meaning that is nonetheless encompassed by the familiar musical world of love, loss, and rock ‘n’ roll. There have always been shades of darkness and complexity lingering beneath the pretty indie surfaces of Jay’s work — as witnessed in earlier covers of Suicide, Eno, and Siouxsie — but here these themes are expressed sonically, rather than in lyrics or cultural reference points. If there is any criticism to be made, it’s that the songs are just slightly too samey over the course of the album, but when they’re so hooky without a trace of obviousness, this is a minor defect.
With Dream Diary, it feels like Jay’s persona has developed from awkward, lovestruck, yet still sophisticated adolescent, to sophisticated yet still awkward and lovestruck man, but to leave it at this would be to deny the elusive refinement of his work. Like Scott Walker in his early solo period, Jay is making accomplished and deeply interesting contemporary pop music while also teasing the listener with seductive unfolding visions of immanence as evolutionary possibility.