Lightspeed Champion Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You

[Domino; 2010]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: genre-bouncing singer songwriters
Others: Elvis Costello, Todd Rundgren

Free of the pressure to create genre-bending music congruent with Test Icicles’ wild and lofty reputation, Devonte Hynes focused his first effort as Lightspeed Champion on simple heart-wrenching country-folk. Writing in a style seemingly nicked from Conor Oberst, Hynes turned in the pastoral and often quite beautiful Falling Off the Lavender Bridge, but those plaintive, whispery folk songs only hinted at the potential for his new vehicle. In fact, Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You already finds Hynes moving on to new stylistic ventures, this time echoing two of his more obvious influences, Elvis Costello and Todd Rundgren.

Anyone expecting more of the maudlin balladry found on Lavender Bridge will quickly discover an uncanny pastiche of 70s anti-pop. Lead single “Marlene,” with its chopping guitar chords and bouncing beat, best exemplifies the change in direction. Here, Hynes’ protagonist jokes with a lover: Stick a spoon into your heart/ Eat a way all your deutschmarks/ Your money don’t mean a damn thing/ I’m wearing everything I own/ Stop being cool.” It’s all jovial nonsense on the surface and in spirit, recalling both Costello’s “Allison” and “Veronica.” But the fun turns on a phrase when Hynes confesses his dilemma: “I’m ready to give up on you now/ […] Everybody knows you want a baby/ […] Promises always keep breaking/ Now I don’t know what to do.”

Hynes replicates Costello’s tongue-in-cheek humor well and continues his penchant for using a few words to transform a song’s entire meaning. So it’s not surprising that, in many ways, emulation becomes a recurring theme on Life is Sweet!: “Faculty of Fears” borrows from Bowie in its grand elegance, subtle androgyny, and conspicuous choice of subject matter, while several pieces throughout the album owe a debt to the majestic pop of Brian Eno’s pre-ambient albums. “The Big Guns of Highsmith” pinches Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” with its raucous chorus, “Oh just stop complaining/ Oh just stop complaining!” while even the two instrumental intermissions feel as though they would’ve fit well on either Rundgren’s Something/Anything or Bowie’s Aladdin Sane.

All this pilfering brings to mind two salient quotes; if it’s true that “there’s nothing new under the sun,” and “every poet is a thief,” then Hynes’ cut-and-paste homage works only as an exercise in imitation. That might describe the genesis of a lot of music written and recorded every year, but it ultimately doesn’t fit here. Luckily, there’s enough of Hynes’ soul poured into these autobiographical lyrics to rescue the album, and his songwriting exhibits enough of his idiosyncrasies to grade on a curve. After all, we each learn first through imitation. Life is Sweet! depicts a gifted artist taking a very solid step on the road to self-discovery. He’s just wrestling with the palpable anxiety of influence at the moment.

Links: Lightspeed Champion - Domino

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