What does a mad girl’s love song sound like? Or rather — in a post-Enlightenment culture that both idealizes and pathologizes the concept of madness — what does a representation of a mad girl’s love song sound like? If we take the song of that title as representative of Maria Minerva’s new LP, Will Happiness Find Me?, we might think of a number of concepts that have been fashionable for some time now and that culture is far from through with: fractures, hybrids, plurivocality. For me to say that these are apt descriptives of WHFM? is to admit that, at first, the album left me a little lonely for the more immediately overt pop qualities previously characteristic of Minerva’s oeuvre. But it isn’t by any means a “difficult” piece; rather, frames of pop songs appear and disappear, complete or partial, alongside moments of ambience and intra-track evolution, a paradoxically contemporaneous palimpsest.
Like so many other moves away from accessibility, this is a beast both subtler and more mature than the artist’s earlier work. WHFM? bears the imprints of other contemporary trends — the 80s and 90s revival, particularly — although here (as opposed to the disco and Italo familiar to fans), the 90s influence is more in evidence, complete with hints of New Jack Swing (not to mention a few skankin’ rhythms here and there and an MC spot from Cha$e Royal). Within that revival, though, there’s also a nod to the contemporary lo-fi synthetic sensibility and the juxtaposition of discordant yet harmonious elements in unexpected, roughly-cut loops. But if we take the dissonant element of the sound — disparate beats and slightly misplaced samples, repetition that could verge on irritation but just eludes that and hence nods to the sublime, Minerva’s own adorably cool off-key singing — there lies also the spectre of Björk before she went all tinkly and organic.
One of the questions eternally floating over post or post-postmodern “alternative” music is the question of its engagement with capitalism and the market (inevitably bringing in the fraught question of authenticity). This face-off can result in two different forms of defeat. In one corner, there is a tendency to retreat to questions of love and of emotion unmoored in circumstance, as if they are the only meaningful thing in the experienced universe. For the more thoughtful in the other, there is instead a classic deflection of head-on confrontation, a critical exploration of postmodern neoliberalism’s spaces using its own tools (as in vaporwave) — but one that is no longer able to propose meaningful resistance, a putative critique that fails to question the existence of an alternative or the future possibility of an outside. Perhaps the finest moment on WHFM?, the disingenuous, self-cancelling and musically gorgeous “I Don’t Wanna Be Discovered” — a track that is somehow a riposte and reflowering of Grace Jones’ themes on “Private Life” — brings this tension to the surface, and in doing so is worth quoting at length:
“But if you don’t know by now
The world is a cruel place baby
You got to sell your soul to survive
I hate everything fake
I don’t care if my reputation’s at stake
I don’t want my voice to be heard
I don’t wanna be discovered
I just wanna lay low
I just wanna let go”
A line from this song gives the album its title. And, still on the celebrity trope, closer “The Star” features a curiously but deeply addictive, Liberace-referencing sample of The Chordettes’ immortal “Mr Sandman.” Despite this, WHFM? isn’t one of those pieces, now almost ubiquitous in mainstream pop, which takes celebrity itself, and the celebrity of the speaker in particular, as its navel-gazing theme — a trope that in former times might have been congratulated for breaking the fourth wall, but now seems merely tired and self-obsessed, whether a manifestation of self-pity or of egotism.
Elsewhere, the lyrics don’t return to the trashy faux-transgression of a piece like Cabaret Cixous’ “Ruff Trade,” but they tend to rehearse clichés — although it’s hard to know to what degree this may be purposeful (but this question of irony is ironically in itself now a cliché). This question mark hovers over lines related to love and its angsts (“I want to hear you scream my name,” “I never know what you feel inside”) or else to the embarrassingly authentic New Age, techno-mystic paradigms now making a cultural comeback (“This goes out to all the dreamers of dreams”). But despite (or because of) these discontents, this is an interesting move, in that it represents a rejection of high-concept without engaging the Romantic anti-intellectualism beloved of myriad artists. So one is indeed left asking (from the album title on down) whether these words are genuinely naïve or whether they are purposefully fashioned. But where sometimes the fact that one is posing such a question itself seems like evidence either of a flaw or of the author’s desire to bet both ways, here ambiguity itself is characteristic of the cool palette of the music.
Many of the tracks have that peculiar sonic quality according to which they are premised on a simple, not overly-attractive melody line, which does not resonate in one’s memory of the piece. But in the moment of listening itself, the lo-fi complexities, interactions, and repetitions create a revelation. “Heart Like A Microphone” gives a sense of synthetic a cappella, while “Coming of Age” — I won’t belabor the aptness of the title except to point it out — morphs through three iterations of pop and experimental tones, a microcosm of the album itself. “Sweet Synergy,” with its refrain, “Resurrection, newfound perfection/ Boy you drive me up the wall,” revives the concerns of Minerva’s last release, the Sacred and Profane Love EP. And this theme is also apparent in the question posed by the album title, which suggests grace and predestination rather than agency and free will. Surrender, passivity, a being-capturedness: capturing the zeitgeist can no longer be approached unironically, and neither can the question of capturing the zeitgeist. Let that thought linger as you press play.