Consider the snowglobe. When you pick it up, you’re holding something that’s capable of conjuring absolutes of beauty, force, and fragility — I mean, shake it and a season just happens — but the snowglobe you tend to end up with is something like this. Somewhere between reality and the possibilities offered by this strange incandescent paperweight, kitsch and the desire to transform the transcendent into the ornamental (and eerily narcissistic) intervenes. And so it is with chamber pop. In this post-Sufjan age (in the years AS, for the calendar-minded of you), the idea of people working with a bunch of classically-trained players to make literate, ornate music has unfortunately taken on a pretty precious set of connotations through overuse and abuse; like, if you can get through the video for “16 Military Wives,” you’re on the wrong side of history, and I won’t even start on Patrick Watson. Even Sufjan h(H)imself, who made made the highpoint for fussy, anal whimsy, backed away from the idea. Like one of those ingenue female protagonists from a Belle and Sebastian song, he liberated everyone from their inhibitions, and everyone in turn got a little fucked over by the results. Yet, as ever, the antidote to diminishing returns in this kind of thing is subsuming everything to craft and integrity, and Arc Iris is one of the best crafted records anyone, anywhere will release this year.
Based in Queens, Liam Singer has been around for a while, but Arc Iris smacks with the freshness of putting your head into the first ever grocery store refrigeration system, quietly stacking up a pile of minor miracles until the picture transcends the brushstrokes. Laboriously tinkered over with sideman par excellence Scott Solter, it’s a flowing suite of nocturnes, militaristic interludes, and eerie chamber torch ballads, lit by stunningly and delicately deployed woodwinds and keyboards in wandering and richly pained-over arrangements. This is a record for precious solitude without either preciousness or loneliness, which is as deft as all hell a thing to accomplish: is Liam Singer the Mahela Jayawardene of classical pop music? It’s big enough to fit inside and small enough to carry around.
Although there’s definitely a surfeit of ideas and invention on display (“Stranger I Know” somehow manages to sound like a hesitant oompah), the confidence Singer shows in pushing his simplest ideas out to fruition is extremely satisfying, as the best moments come when the record gets the chance to breathe out fully. Take the builds and swells in “Dear Sister/Gears Turn in Gears;” as the motif of the second half repeats upon itself, gradually adding further flourishes and counterpoints, it rises to a swoon that’s basically 10/10 dancing around the bedroom stuff. Consider it the “Party Hard” for hermits. The gorgeous interlude “The Dance of Cupid and Psyche” follows, and it runs among the best six minutes of music to surface this year. On paper, “The Astronaut” merely repeats a verse and a chorus three times, but looking closer, it’s a progression that sounds like Esquivel writing a Christmas carol before Singer rolls out a velvet carpet of a melody that effortlessly moves forward over what feels like an unbroken 48-bar phrase or something (but you’re not counting). Similarly, “Unhand Me (You Horrid Thing)” is surprisingly simple at heart, with a naked pulse pushing it forward like a twice-removed baroque iteration of Duran Duran.
His lyrics scan as abstruse when immersed in the arrangements, but key phrases emerge out of the ether. Idling in an earthy melancholy, even the moments of great action and bluster find him reflective, as strangers emerge and disappear once they take on darker significance, youths are frightful and jeopardized, and appearances give way to something more sinister; “Nine, ten/ Ready or not/ I’m crawling out/ Of your skin.” Singer’s vocal range is narrow, but he works it to his advantage, as his voice seems to peer into his lyrics like a crow unsure of whether to jump at its reflection, while his arrangements peek around the corners of the problem. It’s all like feeling a sail billow behind you.
For all its virtues, the album tapers somewhat as it goes, but “Forever Blossoming” is a stark, sad standout, detailing an end to things — “Pardon me/ Have we met/ You’ve got the kind of face/ That i’d like to forget” — as his melody twitches into a lovely, plaintive sense of ambivalence. With this, the arc of the record becomes clear, as Singer comes toward completing a journey from approaching the “Stranger I Know” (“Hold your breath/ I’ll hold mine too”) toward experience, then eventually wisdom (i.e., nuh-uh, not that again of the record’s final third). As such, The Caretaker-esque decaying bookends feel strikingly appropriate; like the snowglobe, after you shake it and watch the world change, it settles back as you began, except now you know how the whole thing works. Likewise, Arc Iris is a thing of quiet knowingness.