Starchild & The New Romantic Crucial [EP]

[Ghostly International; 2016]

Styles: rhythms, blues
Others: Parliament, Prince

On a technical level, there’s much to admire about Crucial. Singer-songwriter Bryndon Cook has here produced a stylistically accomplished and well-thought-out collection, a delicious exercise in computer soul. To say that it’s overproduced would be missing the point. Its overproduction is the point. Cook has pushed every button and tweaked every dial. It’s a compellingly polished product. However, this comes at the expense of the songwriting, which never quite makes us care enough. In doing so, Starchild commits a very familiar sin. In spending so much time on style, he leaves out the substance. This leaves the unlucky judicious listener with almost nothing to say.

We can save ourselves from this by pointing to the series of problems running through Crucial. One of them is how the sense of time and history in contemporary popular music is firmly out of joint. Crucial is lodged between classicism and contemporaneity, but neither of them properly comingle here. Audiences both old and young will find it easy to register its classicist leanings because they so obviously serve the reproduction of exchange-value in its own right. All the signifiers — all the synth stabs, guitar hooks, and vocal croons — express themselves in terms of the memorialized value of something else we can’t quite identify: the listener’s happy experience of some other classic recording.

Crucial is a clear case of de jure hero-imitation and de facto self-satisfaction. Cook definitely loves all the same music as we do and with all the same giddy passion, but he sees himself too much in what he loves without risking meaning, without appearing to be anything more than an imitator. It’s as if papa has gone and bought himself a brand new laptop, and it’s housed in a stylish carry-case featuring all-new video embedding, like the cereal box and personalized advertisements in The Minority Report.

The second problem derives from how Starchild updates the traditional themes of R&B for the digital age. He spends the whole record cooing and coaxing a series of barely-described lovers, but it’s never clear whether they’re real, imagined, or an idealized online version of the two. These aren’t the vaulting ambitions of the romantic hero, because he never really lays his heart on the line, never saying anything outrageous or vulnerable enough.

Every track here is magnificently slow and slushy, lullaby-like visions of desired bodies and romanticized souls. The singular exception to this is the spiky plastic funk of “Slammin’ Mannequin,” with its bouncing beat and thrillingly squeaky guitar solo that twitches along with the sequencer stabs. However, it all ends far too abruptly, not unlike his begging of the song’s addressee to “Be [his] girl for a day or two.” “Love Interlude” contains a horny yowl cribbed from Prince, and the synth in the chorus of “New Romantic” is tweaked so much it sounds almost like a shrill remnant of steel pan drums.

Ultimately, Crucial is an entirely appropriate soundtrack to the age of cybersexuality, of voyeurism (without the risk or longing), of endlessly poring over Instagram accounts chocked full of riotously toned bums and tums: a very 21st-century unfulfillable dream. The bodies Starchild desires so much have little to do with agency, action, or our practical engagement with the world. There’s no question of the body as the physical organization of the soul. Rather, it’s conceived as narrowly as possible: still healthy and active, still implicitly athletic, but imagined only as decked out in lycra, lips pouting in front of the mirror.

Links: Starchild & The New Romantic - Ghostly International

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