D∆WN Redemption

[Local Action/Our Dawn Entertainment; 2016]

Styles: pop, footwork, trance, garage
Others: Lone, Machinedrum, Dawn Richard

D∆WN’s new album, Redemption, is billed as the third in the trilogy she began with 2012’s Goldenheart. She’s been on a steep upward trajectory since that release, culminating in last year’s Blackheart picking up rave reviews and placing highly on various year-end lists. She’s also carved out an increasingly prominent position in underground dance music, collaborating with Fade to Mind’s Kingdom on the Infrared EP, having her work remixed by Murlo and Deadboy, and working closely with Machinedrum on this album. Like Blackheart, Redemption situates itself at the intersection of the underground and the overground, albeit with mixed results. This space, which has previously proved so fertile for D∆WN, has become fraught and swamp-like, birthing a number of ponderous songs that split the difference between banger and ballad, pop and dance, never consistently synthesizing the two.

On the surface, D∆WN’s collaboration with Machinedrum makes a lot of sense. Both skew toward the maximal in their approach to composition and songwriting, and their pre-album single, “Not Above That,” seemed to suggest that they understood how to interlace their respective styles. But for the majority of this album, D∆WN seems distracted, submerged under Machinedrum’s labyrinthine, ultra-detailed production, as both collaborators constantly search for the next sound or genre to inhabit. This means that many of these songs begin promisingly before losing momentum and settling into turgid grooves. Rather than serving as a platform for D∆WN and Machinedrum to hybridize and expand the pop form, Redemption offers ornate, glittering garments, which constrict as they envelop.

Take “Love Under Lights,” for example. It fades in serenely, light-fingered trance chords and unhurried beats pushing it along, its sounds saturated and glossy. D∆WN’s voice rings out, as her lyrics trace the imbrications of sex, love, and drugs. The song builds steadily to a climax, its layers fizzing and shaking as they coalesce into an ecstatic burst of sound, before transitioning into a brittle, footwork-leaning coda. There’s a sense of exploration in its movements, its willingness to bring together seemingly incoherent elements as part of its broader narrative thrust. But it also feels disjointed, as if it were being pulled in too many directions at once, its individual elements failing to agglomerate into a cogent sonic whole, settling instead for a labored strut. Many of Redemption’s songs trace this narrative trajectory, expanding and contracting, always looking for the next peak to summit, the next drop to execute. When twinned with a set of syncopations and generic signifiers known for their propulsive qualities (trance, garage, footwork), these songs come to feel overladen and sclerotic, their impact attenuated by their schizophrenic momentum, half mid-tempo roller, half EDM-overload.

This is not to say that Redemption is a failure. There are moments, particularly toward the album’s second half, where D∆WN and Machinedrum are more restrained, enabling their individual approaches to meld together fluently. An early indicator of the fruitfulness of this approach is fifth track “LA,” featuring Trombone Shorty. A rich bass line and snatches of guitar dovetail smoothly over a West Coast hip-hop-inspired beat. The production provides the necessary space for D∆WN to fill with neat, carefully-constructed phrases that gradually unfurl into longer tones as she nears the chorus. The song captures the expansiveness of the titular city, as well as its undercurrent of melancholy, the sense that one is drowning in its sprawl. This sonic and emotional openness allows its parts to flow together fluidly, bringing the listener along as it moves through footwork, Low End Theory-style jazz noodling, guitar solos, and, finally, a trumpet-flecked outro that nods to D∆WN’s New Orleans roots. Here the surfeit of ideas is energizing, conveying a sense of generic and sonic frontiers being crossed at will and with levity and ease. And it’s the sense of restraint here that re-emerges in the final run of tracks, which exhibit a more agile marriage of vocals and production, to affecting ends.

On songs like “Vines (Interlude)” and “The Louvre,” D∆WN’s proves herself an adept chronicler of intimacy, of the hermetic spaces lovers jointly construct to house their desires and fears. Here, her sonic palette is calm, her vocals hushed, her lyrics pregnant. On the latter, over mournful violin, lightly-treated keys, and droning, post-rock guitar, she bares herself in front of her lover, proffering her vulnerability, her need: “I stared at you like a work of art/ You should be on a wall instead of hanging in my heart/ But I’m too greedy to share your wonderful parts/ So I’ll frame you with me and hope that’s enough.” The song builds behind her words, accumulating layers rather than rocketing upward, D∆WN’s voice intimate in the verses and panoramic in the chorus. It’s a subtle, powerful harnessing of sound and emotion, playing to D∆WN’s strengths: her vocal dexterity, the ease with which she incorporates new textures and structures into her sound, and her belief in the transversal qualities of pop music. Regrettably, on Redemption, these moments of beatific synthesis, of unencumbered pop, are the exception rather than the rule.

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