Small Black Limits of Desire

[Jagjaguwar; 2013]

Styles: synth-pop, “chillwave,” “electrogaze,” adolescent hormonal imbalance.
Others: Neon Indian, Washed Out, Memory Tapes, Air France.

There’s a parallel between Limits of Desire and Wittgenstein’s/Jastrow’s famed rabbit-duck illusion. Depending on your perspective, on whether you’re standing up, sitting down, or scratching your armpit, you can perceive the album in one of at least two ways: Either it hits you as a work of quixotic optimism, of a stubborn obliviousness to doubt and all that’s cynical, or it leaves its mark as a soundtrack to unwashable melancholy and longing. But which is it “really” — the hopeful rabbit or the wistful duck? Well, as with the optical illusion, the answer is probably an unhelpful “both” and “neither,” since like all artistic creations, the LP justifies its existence by functioning as a suitable projector screen and validator for our states of body and mind, and as such, its significance is liable to change with the volatility of our selves. On the other hand, Small Black’s maturing vein of nebulous synth-pop is so finely balanced between nostalgic yearning and deferred bliss that it not only belies the dichotomy between these two alleged poles, but collapses them into the opposite sides of a single coin, meaning that any question as to whether it’s exclusively “this” or “that” misses the mark. In other words, when it comes to the bittersweet revelry of their sophomore effort, “hope” is merely the acting out of youthful dejection and therefore always tinged with the implication of its frustrated origins.

It takes a while for the double-edged nature of the album to sink in, however. The first couple of tracks fizz and spray with the musical vapor of bright-eyed synths and skyward feedback, immediately demarcating it from its predecessor along lines of instrumental warmth and production gloss. During opener “Free at Dawn,” Josh Kolenik susurrates in a noticeably emboldened key about how he won’t be compromised away from his object of desire (“I’ve been keeping my, keeping myself from you/ Hoping you’re, hoping you’ll just come to), and with the assistance of an electro-bass and its quickened, oscillating heartbeat, the quartet appear to set themselves decisively towards their libidinal/amorous end. Yet even with the succeeding piece (“Canoe”) and its pining heat haze, there emerge signs that this telos won’t be easily realized; over its course, Kolenik uses the metaphor of the canoe (most likely for the self as an instrument of social navigation) to express how he’s “stuck between two shores,” and during the sultry verses, he confesses to “spinning in circles” and also reassures himself that “she’s no enemy,” as if to allay more sober misgivings to the contrary. All this cryptic hand-wringing unfurls over the backdrop of characteristically weightless synthesizers and a disarmingly sylphic chorus, which together obfuscate the suspicion that the lyrical subject matter could be anything other than unimpeachably positive.

Despite the creeping reservations, and the residues of emptiness inflecting every sunlit hook, the band hold fast to their idyll and raison d’être, and it isn’t long before its content is more explicitly manifested. In fact, to abstract what this is, you need only glance at the LP’s cover at the top of this page, which depicts a naked man and woman embracing at the apex of a step-ladder. This arresting image probably says it all: the search at the center of Limits of Desire is at once the search for another and for completion/self-actualization in that other. But this is arguably too simplistic a reduction of the record’s themes and concerns, since later songs widen out to problematize this search through allusions to the conflicts and contradictions inherent to sex/romance/love. Foremost among these is “Only A Shadow,” a brooding, silhouetted creep through the apprehension that each half of a couple is fundamentally unknowable to the other, and that what lovers interact with during their trysts are merely the ambiguous and potentially misinterpreted byproducts of a consciousness, rather than that consciousness itself (“Chasing you/ Just a flash, a finger-press on the glass”). This inscrutability and truthlessness of the inamorato/a is also intimated through the clubby, quasi-euphoria of “No Stranger,” where Kolenik warns his unnamed muse that “You don’t even know/ Where I come from/ Could I be someone/ You could trust?” In that same song, he also raises the dilemma of self-preservation, of preventing oneself from being subsumed and swallowed by a more insistent or intransigent personality, when he mouths “Take me for another body/… /Take me, I can be whoever you want.” These portents are also encoded by the above-mentioned cover, which is perhaps so indelible precisely because it appears to show two people almost congealing into one tumorous mass.

But it should be qualified that none of the psychosexual friction and emotional ambivalence of Limits of Desire would have been quite so detectable without Small Black having gone through a measure of stylistic growth between it and New Chain. And while some might be disappointed that the band have largely jettisoned the unvarnished zaps and buzzes of that debut and their self-titled EP, there will be others who’ll find the nuanced gleam and halcyonic spunk of the present LP much more inviting. In harmony with this revamp, the songwriting and composition on display has been tightened and streamlined, with the calculated verse-chorus structure of most of the 10 numbers facilitating the blazed vibe that stands in seesawing contrast to its punctured counterpart. Both are accentuated by the puberty of Kolenik as a vocalist, who has left behind the occasional drifts into lo-fi impassivity and flatness to become conspicuously more expressive and sinuous, with his palette having diversified to cover both ends of the LP’s affective duplicity.

The only drawback to these renovations is that they cause the music here to dip into superficiality on rare instances, with the sparkly, even sickly treble of the keys that initiate “Proper Spirit” arguably being the disc’s nadir. But then again, this “superficiality” — of the love-relationship and the aspirations underlying it — is in part what the band is perhaps trying to dissect through the album, by musically dramatizing how the mythos of romance is indissolubly and self-defeatingly bound up with the existential isolation, impotence and angst that motivates its often insupportable exaggeration and embellishment. And there’s little doubt that, despite the odd slip into the saccharine and the set’s lack of anything notably outré or innovative, they do this with conviction and integrity, to the extent where Limits of Desire will receive plenty of service from the lovestruck and jaded alike over the span of this hopefully torrid summer.

Links: Small Black - Jagjaguwar

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