Twin Shadow Caer

[Reprise; 2018]

Styles: pop, new wave, indie
Others: The Cure, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Taylor Swift

It’s not easy to make a record that tries to grasp the ethos of its own time by looking to another generation — in this case, the 1980s — for inspiration. It’s what George Lewis Jr. (Twin Shadow) has been trying to do since 2010’s Forget, and it’s what has always burdened his music with imbalance. Finally, in Caer, Lewis finds the clearest expression of the ideas he’s been chasing for almost a decade. Referencing Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, driven by an emotionality reminiscent of The Cure, and containing anthemic moments that easily stand alongside contemporaries Taylor Swift and Lorde (and that often tower over them), Lewis has made a deeply fulfilling pop album that finds tremendous feeling and balance in its great hooks, thoughtful composition, and sentimental narratives.

Whether it’s seeking thrills, affection, or simply to forget, Lewis’s music has always been predominantly about desire. His songs, reflecting his hunger for intimacy, have tremendous gravitational pull, regardless of how pastiche they seem. They’re black holes of passion, beckoning with their glossy synths to anyone who will listen. Yet, from the misty guitars, over-the-top drumlines, and 1980s-style key modulations of maximalist new wave record Confess to the bedroom-pop crooning and sparkling, languid melodies of Forget, Lewis’s search for meaning has always been secondary to his quest for stylistic mastery. He has been a pendulum, swinging ever too far in one direction or the other. Until now.

“Caer” means “to fall” in Spanish, the language of Lewis’s native country (the Dominican Republic), which is a perfect title for the album, considering its themes. In English, though, it reads as “care,” disfigured, which communicates Lewis’s reticence, his fear, his yearning for companionship. Spanish or English, both embody the essence of the album, which is full of reckonings involving such ideas, like the schizophrenic “Obvious People” and its conversation of sorts between two distinct sides of the singer: the lamenting lover and the jealous, angry boyfriend. In the song, those sides enter into a neon-ringed mortal combat, hurling lines like “You wrestle my fears without letting me go/ But I knew you would fall for those obvious people” and “Love is a need/ Lust is a dream.” In earlier albums, Lewis wanted us to see a master of 1980s synth sounds and a wayward motorcycle hero, but in Caer, he wants us to see a vulnerable man who’s learned to tame and wield pop music history in order to give himself voice.

He’s not shy about pastiche. Album opener “Brace” sounds like Justin Bieber, Skrillex, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty made a song together… and it works on every level. He even gives Petty two nods, both in the lyric “Tom Petty waiting on a free fall” and in the gigantic, “Free Fallin’”-referencing chorus that follows. The Tom Petty references haunt the song’s chord progressions prior to the chorus, but only come into focus when Lewis actually mentions Petty by name, which is a spectacular way to go about it. This lets us see just how close to the surface Lewis’s gods are hiding, as well as how adept he is at integrating them.

“Saturdays,” one of my favorite pop songs in recent memory, has a similar deal — its whip-cracking percussion and its candid, gut-punching longing for action evoke Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” but it isn’t until Lewis sings “Saturdays/ When we dance in the dark in the room/ Where it all gets real” that The Boss properly enters the song. Amazingly, “Saturdays” captures the pathos of Born in the U.S.A. without sacrificing its own 2018-ness. Lewis deserves a lot of credit for his songwriting here; the line “I know you know how it feels” is breathtaking each time I hear it. It’s just an unbelievably powerful song. Oh, and HAIM’s feature in it totally rules.

“Little Woman” seems simple from the outside, but it’s a slow-burning treasure, a delicate composition that threatens to unravel every time Lewis’s shaky voice enters. Its menacing synths, which are used so smartly, have an impact every time they crescendo; since the song’s textures and form are so malleable and unstable, each moment feels intense and deliberate. “Littlest Things,” one of the best songs of Lewis’s career, is so candid and transparent that its lyrics are almost indistinguishable from the 1980s songs that Lewis loves so much. But there’s nothing ironic about them at all. These lyrics find a perfect home among the song’s glistening, cascading synths, pointillistic guitars, and massive (and massively controlled) percussion. Lines like “Maybe I’m faded in love/ Maybe I don’t try enough/ But my hope is just to find you/ And I know its the littlest things” fit into the song like puzzle pieces, landing with such weight and sincerity that the song might, for many listeners, cause an actual emotional reaction. Not because it’s pastiche, not because it’s technically great, but because it feels so real.

Instead of turning up to 11 in the album’s final stretch, Lewis doubles down on himself and takes the music on a deeply personal left turn. “Rust (Interlude)” gets into his own history, juxtaposing his need for love in the present with a brief-but-tumultuous family backstory; “Runaway” is built around sacred advice from his grandmother, which I won’t spoil here, since the lyrics are so good that they should just remain in the song. In Caer, Lewis is looking in many directions: into the mirror, to his past, toward his idols, and, most importantly, into his own heart. When “Runaway” finally amps up, it’s catalyzed by lyrics from “Brace,” and the album comes full circle, giving the feeling that Lewis is actually coming to meaningful realizations about himself. Hence, Caer is a magnificent oasis of feeling and reflection, where self-doubt, confidence, love, and lust live so comfortably alongside one another. What more can be asked of a pop album?

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