Twin Shadow Eclipse

[Warner Bros.; 2015]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: “bringing you the hits of the 80s, 90s and today.”
Others: Haim, Autre Ne Veut, Imagine Dragons

“Old Love/New Love” was the first hint that something had changed for George Lewis Jr. The song — released by way of the Grand Theft Auto V soundtrack in 2013, as part of a fake radio channel hosted by Lewis himself, no less — was unlike any Lewis had yet to record. With four minutes of Michael McDonald vocals, disco guitars, Geiger counter drum programming, and 4/4 house beats, the song felt like roleplay or provocation; one way or another, games were being played. “Old Love/New Love” depicts a relationship of extremes: love as a hit and run, a haphazardly-lobbed grenade, or a sniper shot piercing across an implausible distance; love as life and death; love as both and neither. “Drill me to the floor,” Lewis chants, “this hurts even more than I expected it to do,” the awkward phrasing and unlikely violence of the image matched by the trembling defensiveness of his voice. Whatever element of parody was central to this song’s existence, this tone of insecurity was at least as shocking as the pivot into dance music. The florid and fatalistic romanticism of Forget curdled into an unconvincing series of PUA braggadocio on 2012’s Confess, but both records were marked by a confidence and suavity that outpaced the technical limitations of its creator’s voice. But on “Old Love/New Love,” a song that for two years existed primarily as a solitary brick in a dense wall of video game diegesis, George Lewis Jr. allowed himself to sound unsure of himself, at least for the first time as Twin Shadow. Reappearing on Eclipse, the third Twin Shadow record, “Old Love/New Love” exemplifies this dichotomy even more fully. Divorced from the ironic context of a Grand Theft Auto sequel, the chrome sheen of the song’s engineering and the swampy morass of its emotional concerns contrast one another in a way that eludes simple categorization. Eclipse is the most conventional and commercial Twin Shadow record Twin Shadow has made, but it’s also his riskiest, most personal, and emotionally-complex release yet. If these qualities are mutually exclusive, they still depend on one another for tension and relief; Eclipse, for all of its flaws, offers generous portions of each.

There’s no getting around the fact that Eclipse is a loud, garish record in every way but lyrically. Pop is onomatopoeic; it must stand out to qualify, and sheer volume is certainly one shortcut to being heard. Here, Lewis (and his production team) have mastered the record in such a way that subtlety is all but eradicated, or at the very least covered, like concealer over a black eye, by the koan-ish repetition of choruses turned up to eleven. It’s understandable, then, that some would miss the message as a result of this method. “My heart is a chamber of trust for you” Lewis mumbles on “Flatliners,” Eclipse’s first song, preceding the skitter of digital emulations of steel drums, the point at which it transforms into a high camp mashup of Abel Tsefarye and Hozier. Lewis takes us to church at pretty much every opportunity, but his message is diverse, inclusive, more Unitarian than the stifling orthodoxy that comprises most mainstream pop music. Trust, in the case of Eclipse, is not strictly a matter of physical, or even emotional, fidelity. Trust is a belief that the benefit of connection transcends humankind’s potential for undermining our own best interests.

“When the Lights Turn Out” exemplifies this ideological nuance better than most of Eclipse’s other songs, “Old Love/New Love” notwithstanding. The instrumentation is so chipper — all blocky mall pop synths and digital shimmer, the musical progression is one of triumph and perseverance — that it immediately reeks of over-compensation. You’d be forgiven for failing to notice that it’s the most positive account of cuckolding you’re likely to hear in a pop song. But those synths don’t lie, after all; this is a song about hard-earned success, one that entails finding comfort and pleasure in non-normative relationships. It is, regardless of the orientation of its creator, more radically queer in ideology than any message song about marriage equality could ever be. The “agony and ecstasy” that is “slowly taking over” Lewis’s mind and body is an expression of a unique, individualized love. There is no flattening, no sameness or false equivalency here, and the kink factor is mitigated by an acknowledgement of the fact that what makes love weird also makes it worthwhile. Even more noteworthy is the way that Lewis writes himself into these songs; last time around, he was the kind of heartbreaker who rubs infidelity in his lovers’ faces, but now, rather than expressing contrition or an admission of the error of his ways, Lewis writes about love with empathy, putting himself in the place of the heartbroken, with a level of commitment that transcends fleeting human error.

Love is the only subject covered on Eclipse, but from song to song, Lewis shows a willingness to grapple with the impractical realities of emotion, and as a result, it never feels repetitive or redundant. “I should be alone, waiting for you,” he sings to former Voice contestant Lily Elise on the fourth track; the modality of this phrasing opens up the idea of compromise and labor in love. Rather than leave himself open to weakness, Lewis closes out the verse with the kind of positive thinking to which everyone falls prey: “So I stay alone, stay alone.” Lewis might not be wholly convincing in this repetition, but he is at least sincere, vulnerable, and deeply human.

Later on the album, Lewis sings about “boys in full bloom” who are haunted by “the ghost of embarrassing memories.” The third-person perspective shifts into first before the chorus begins. Those cited lyrics are some of the most specific on Eclipse and yet fall short of some of the stronger images on his previous records — “Are your cheeks still red from where you caught the hand, or are you just in love again?” for one — but the blankness of his current lyrical template could more generously be considered another act of inclusion. Perspective changes many things, empathy supersedes most differences. “I think they are loved. I know they are loved.” Lewis is no passive observer here. He uses simplicity to work toward a deeper truth, one that isn’t always easy to admit out loud: we all need love, we’re just not always ready for it.

Lewis begins the penultimate song, “Watch Me Go,” with an oddly-phrased confession: “I buried my head in the tiniest framework.” What that means I can only guess, but in the least editorial interpretation I can muster, it speaks, broadly, to a head-kept-down restriction, to methods of coexistence that can be difficult, or harmful even, to many. “Watch me go, insane,” he begs, the lyrical sentiment matched by the cartoonish intensity of the music. Here, Lewis sounds eerily similar to Arthur Ashin, desperate for someone, a lover presumably, to validate his suffering. The vocal filters drip with digital bleed, and consciously or not, “Watch Me Go” is a culmination of Eclipse’s duality, the most obviously synthetic song also being its most emotionally direct. In hindsight, the record is full of conflations like this one, where artificiality seems to imply that everything is a construct, our emotional states most of all. If so much of Eclipse sounds like a pep talk, then at least the goal is the buffeting of the ego rather than its appeasement. “To The Top” is so intricately engineered that the vocals sound like they’re being sung from above, at and not to you. The song is jarring in its mania, its positivity, so much so that it resembles nothing more than Dirk Diggler’s coke euphoria brought to life. The song’s artificiality bridges the gulf between what isn’t and what could be, which in this case means happiness, mutual understanding, reconciliation. It’s a very Californian endeavor, creating a perfect world through the force of will alone.

Eclipse is not a record for everyone, and Twin Shadow’s older fans probably are justified in their dismissals. But in terms of emotional texture, Eclipse represents a return to form, after Confess’s brittle kiss and tell. Indie rock purists probably won’t appreciate just how comprehensively Lewis rejects traditional notions of artistic authenticity, but perhaps they might approve of his music’s sincerity. As “Old Love/New Love” hinted, the pallet of Lewis’ influences has been expanded to include more contemporary sounds, which — utilizing impossible, unreal plasticity — serves to present a model for a post-human ideal. Like Arthur Ashin, this is a hermetic dream of an egoless, sexless world. The world he wants is not the world he inhabits; real life, real emotion, is far messier than most would like. But for George Lewis Jr., nothing is irreconcilable, not love, not hope, and certainly not the syncretism that is compromising one’s concept of love with an entire world of other, equally valid conceptions.

Links: Twin Shadow - Warner Bros.

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