An impressive debut is difficult to overcome. Many artists struggle to define themselves but improve gradually over times. Those are the lucky ones. How can the artists who arrive fully-formed hope to raise the bar past this particular feat? Confess, George Lewis Jr.’s second album as Twin Shadow, is a victim of raised expectations, of having crossed some creative Rubicon on his first pass. 2010’s Forget was a tender, shimmering, sweaty, and indelible work. It crested along with chillwave — late enough that it avoided being lost in the pack, different enough that a few years later the albums still sounds timeless. Forget wasn’t particularly successful in a commercial sense, but it definitely sold the idea of Lewis Jr. as an artist to watch. Better yet, a lot of people loved it and nobody hated it, which is a rare feat in this over-stimulated, instant gratification age. Forget was about as well-regarded as an album can be, without generating a chorus of obstinate, trollish detractors.
To make matters worse, Confess seems, at first, to improve upon the debut. The first track, “Golden Light,” is a thing to behold: so packed full of hooks, it feels like a constant series of payoffs, a perfectly interlocking set of gears, a perpetual motion machine. Propulsive and varied and moody as all fuck, “Golden Light” is the kind of song so good that it compels you to just end there and preserve the perfection of the experience. I’m really not being glib; it’s a shame that there has to be an album to follow.
But what follows isn’t bad. In fact, for a while it seems like it might sustain the energy, the charm, maybe even stick the landing. “You Call Me On” and “Five Seconds” — Confess’ lead single — both make immediate impressions, the former for its atypically abrasive, trance-night-meets-hair-metal aesthetic, the latter for being one of the broadest, hungriest indie singles of the past decade. But “Five Seconds” is a double-edged knife. Opening with the chorus, the song forces its hooks into you bluntly; you want to resist it, but resistance is futile. Despite its assaultive temperament, “Five Seconds” actually culminates in a genuinely gratifying moment of catharsis, but one that’s easy to lose track of in all its racket. One wishes that Lewis Jr. hadn’t self-produced this time around, that someone had been around to remind him that sometimes less is more, that maybe seven repetitions of a chorus would be enough or, at the very least, better than eight or nine. And it doesn’t help that the production is flatter, less subtle this time around.
And the rest? The rest is pretty okay. Taken in small doses, a song like “The One” plays big, but as a section of a whole, it seems chintzy, easy, nearly insufferable. Forget succeeded largely as a result of its modesty. It invited listeners into a world thick with lust and longing; it knew that sometimes underplaying a pass makes a proposition more attractive. Confess, as a contrast, is all come-on, in-your-face, belligerent, “who here’s gonna fuck you better, babe; you know you want it you’re just too uptight to admit it, bitch.” The lyrics, typical alpha-male self-pity material, aren’t all that bad, really, but they’re often curdled by the delivery. “Patiently,waiting for you to give up everything/ Say just what you mean” might entice if dripped from the mouths of dom sex-god-types like Dave Gahan or Michael Hutchence, but from Lewis Jr., it just sounds petty and unappetizing.
Lewis Jr. is capable of so much better. On Forget, he offered lyrics of rare clarity — “Are your cheeks still red from where you caught the hand/ Or are you just in love again?” — images which perfectly conveyed a state of romantic agony, which evinced a keen eye for details, an old soulfulness. Here, the only thing that’s clear about Confess is what’s missing: a sense of intimacy, of seduction, of verisimilitude.