Softcore erotic electronica has reached new levels of subtlety with Syd’s new album. Fin, the neosoul innovator’s solo debut out since February, conjures sinuous calm and an inexorable pull, an undertow with little sonic or conceptual correlative apparent in the music. Syd’s murmurs, exclamations, coos, and exhalations are layered with care and irrepressible delight — all so quietly you could blink and miss it all. Teasing out her soft vocal inflections and textural shading — the album’s deftest pleasures — requires attention; muted delicacies rarely reveal much on first listen. They’ll swallow you up right when you thought you were keeping a safe distance.
Syd got her start in the sly, Odd Future-related R&B band the Internet, whose dreamy guitar/bass/keyboard confections suited her same-sex romantic laments exactly. Ego Death (2015), their last and best album, with its low bass whomp and flickery organic seep packed with sneak hooks and luscious noises, captured the lazy drift of a sun-dazed afternoon. Check “Girl,” an epic seven-minute slow jam: rubbery bass and an intermittently yearning keyboard figure build to an overwhelming degree of burn. For the first six minutes, Syd calmly, tenderly, assuredly comes on to her object of desire, before a short, tuneful outro where, the object of desire having said yes, she backs off and decides just to “live in the moment.” Both halves of the song seem out of the other’s reach, the implication being that desire exists only when something is out of reach. Ego Death expands on that feeling for an hour, suffused with a sensual quality that plays as vividly in the mind’s ear as it does out loud. As the setting for representational erotica, the idiosyncrasies of the Internet’s smoothly peculiar band dynamic are specific enough to produce a sense of privacy. Soft-edged noodling grooves create a space that’s personal and vulnerable. This is late-night music, inhabiting a mellowness so exquisite it also thrills. Now that Syd is recording under her own name, singing over colder, quieter electrobeats, that band identity is a loss. I miss the collaborative mesh of talented musicians, as well as how collectives code functional and/or immersive — both perceptions key to enjoying Ego Death’s particular charm. Luckily, Fin is beguiling enough to compensate.
Syd is some sort of genius at constructing intimacy. Compared to a living, breathing, nondigital neosoul groove, electrobeats hardly signify as private: technological surface usually implies a commercial and hence a public space. Somehow the electronic gloss on Fin has the opposite effect, as muted keyboard glimmer and hushed vocal overdub cast shadows over musical elements that might otherwise shine brightly, suggesting depth beyond what’s immediately audible. Lead single “All About Me” deploys skittering metallic drums and a warped, dinky keyboard loop that in a rapper’s hands would sound aggressively trap but instead shrugs affectlessly while Syd shyly sighs. “Body” harnesses the dissonance between low, resonant electronic shiver and high, percussive rattle as she sings a chorus whose detachment lends it savor; the melody’s modest tingle matches the song’s modest sensual detail. “Know” pairs Syd’s agitated, breathy wail with a slinky, airy vacuum of a synthesizer that slices sharply through the empty space conjured above the drums and chopped-and-screwed backup vocals; the song’s fraught vocal tone over the nervous, rushed, descending hook defines controlled hysteria. Alone, these songs are trifles (except maybe for “Know”), and none equals Ego Death’s “Girl” or the lethargically seductive “Get Away.” In united sequence, marvel at how elegantly her voice moves. The electrobeats, dimmed like bedroom lights, are arranged to accentuate the contours of her singing. Fin’s focus is on the poised ache of her voice, how she navigates simple yet suggestive melodies, and where she does and doesn’t choose to dramatize emotion.
Diffidence is a problem in contemporary R&B. With alternative markets opening up and artsy textural indulgence sneaking into the genre, performers who dodge expressionist convention frequently retreat into inaccessible corners. Praised by critics for conceptual ambition, Solange wasn’t the only singer last year to equate reticence with soulfulness, to insist on quietude in a genre context that requires heftier substance, while King’s eponymous debut solved the problem with supreme lushness. With Syd, avoidance — of volume, of scale, of chewier hooks and tangible physicality — reads not as inadequacy but as studied omission. She draws basic shapes with complex dimensions, singing songs that must proceed from unrepresented emotional reserves. Usually a fixation on atmosphere indicates an inability to imagine anything more substantive, but Fin’s atmosphere captivates, reminiscent of quietstorm’s slow, haunting wash. Somehow looking for the source of the music’s allure ends up producing it. Trying to pin down the magic, to fill in the spots left intentionally blank, augments the music at hand, draws you further into sound, immerses you more deeply in lean groove and the click of the drum machine. Invoking intimacy begs the question of intimacy between whom. Fin’s constructed space is so cozy that the listener is implicated; anything else would be an invasion of privacy. Rather, privacy opens up between listener and album. Syd’s cries and whispers and whimpers and confessions project an aura of exclusivity, and one feels lucky and excited to listen. When she’s animated, she conveys the sense of having something urgent to tell you; when she’s blank, she’s giving the object of desire room. Blankness, moreover, is a function of confidence; only the nervous show off. Imagine a singer as impassive and responsive as Janet Jackson attached to a sonic template as thin as Bryson Tiller’s and the depths of her minimalist implicature emerge. As keyboards and drums continually tweak mood and lighting, individual notes land with unexpected resonance.
If this music proves too slight for some, blame its open-ended ambivalence. Different listeners will hear different subtexts and fill the blank spots differently. Typical of the best R&B, that’s the album’s wonder. Subtlety as aesthetic strategy fails only when it attenuates id. Having dodged this bullet, Syd’s delight in the pleasure principle animates a cautiously irresistible, attentively sensual, fully inhabited and sublimely conceived stunner of an album.