Benjy Keating (a.k.a. Palmistry, a.k.a. “the Irish butter, mixed with the English rain and gutter”) makes minimal pop music to maximal ends. On Pagan, his debut full-length for the increasingly essential Mixpak (home of Gaika, Murlo, and Popcaan), he uses simple synth melodies, antiseptic beats, and a lilting, candid vocal style to craft an emotionally affecting rumination on absence/presence. In stripping these songs back to their essence, he achieves something special, tracing1 a link to a common musical language and set of experiences. As a result, the album feels instantly familiar. This deconstructive approach brings to mind George Saunders, who sets out to write novels, but ends up with short stories, or Arthur Russell, whose World of Echo becomes dance music through its repeated absences. Like Russell, Palmistry forces the listener to pay close attention to the relationship between what is and isn’t there.
Take closing track “Sweetness,” for example. To these ears, the underlying chord progression sounds like a half-forgotten pop smash, a transmission from the periphery of the collective unconscious. The lingering shadow of what the song might have been makes it all the more emotive, an impression augmented by the intimacy of the vocals, which references “bergamot, jasmine, cinnamon sheets.” The song’s chorus revolves around the repetition and juxtaposition of three similar-sounding words — “malady,” “melody,” and “remedy” — which as Carrie Battan notes, results in “I love your malady” coming to bear the trace of “I love your melody.” Most of Pagan’s lyrics are located in this indeterminate, haunted space. They sketch emotions, moods, and scenes, often alighting on moments of loss and memory, or addressing a spectral object or experience — for example, the hazy “I love you like that” in “Lifted” or “Sip’s” impressionistic “make your move and I’ll come for you.”
Palmistry’s treatment of his voice further adds to the album’s ghostly quality. His delivery is slurred, double-tracked and placed high in the mix, close to the listener’s ear. Rhyming phrases, like the aforementioned “melody, malady, remedy,” are overlaid and allowed to rub up against each other, underpinned by subtle auto-tune. The cumulative effect is a foregrounding of vocal texture and consequent surplus of emotion. In this way, Palmistry exists in concert with other vocal-led members of London’s underground club scene, such as Organ Tapes and Uli-K. Like these artists, there’s a bittersweet quality to the album, a sadness that emerges by and through its beauty. Palmistry puts it best on “Beamer” when he declares “I enter the dance with a darkness.”
Another lyric from the same song is instructive in understanding the album’s sonics. Palmistry name-checks Anti-G, a producer who uses Jamaican styles like dancehall to approach hip-hop, house, and UK funky. Pagan operates in a similar vein, using dancehall’s structures, cadences, and syncopations to touch on grime (“Reekin”) and trance2 (“Comeragh Mountains”), while retaining a sound that’s unmistakably its own. It’s a sound that is both inviting and distancing, a soundtrack to a night out experienced in slow motion, in dispatches and half-steps. This nebulous quality is reflected in the concise nature of the album. In 37 minutes, Palmistry provides us with ten songs and three instrumentals before disappearing. This brevity is indicative of the shrewd artistic choices and economy of sound Palmistry deploys in both his music and lyrics, encouraging multiple listens while enabling Pagan to slowly permeate one’s consciousness. These are performative anthems, which use the sonic and affective history of their sounds to construct towering emotional peaks. It is essential inasmuch as it succeeds in touching on something inherent, drawing from a pre-conscious set of sounds to create music that is as striking as it is affecting.
1. “Things are what they are only by bearing the trace of what they are not.”
2. Before joining Mixpak’s ranks, Palmistry released an EP on trance deconstructionist Lorenzo Senni’s Presto?! label.