You’ll be left wondering how Lanza comes up with bright, bold and inarguable melodies from such careful, subtle experiments, but you’ll be in no doubt that it sounds fantastic
Some albums are, by their nature, challenging listens. No one picks up John Coltrane’s Ascension or Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me – written following the death of Phil Elverum’s wife from pancreatic cancer not long after giving birth to their child, the sort of understandably bleak album you steel yourself before playing on your hifi – expecting Top 10 hits. Some albums go out of their way to be challenging: if it’s from Scandinavia during the mid-1980s, purporting to endorse Satanism, fronted by a delightful young man with a criminal record for arson attacks on churches, you can be sure it’s not a deliberately reassuring and welcoming affair. Jessy Lanza’s All the Time isn’t one of those albums. Yet, it’s still something of an oddly challenging listen.
It’s hard to get a handle on opening track Anyone Around. Your attention is diverted by the myriad of strange noises – clicky chattering snares that become a nagging presence in the right channel, a jolting vocal sample in the chorus, thick electronic bass notes that punctuate the airless silences – she chooses to have skate across the surface of what’s essentially a fairly minimalist pop song. Something similar happens on later track Ice Creamy, a bunch of weird sounds conspiring to wrong-foot and confuse you: it opens conventionally enough with a knocking midtempo beat until you get around to Lanza’s vocal, pitched down, rendered off-key and creepy, at odds with the seductiveness and clarity of her singing. If these sound like complaints, they’re not meant to be. They’re confirmation of Lanza’s unusual but inspired vision of pop music.
To be honest, it’s not as if her previous albums were lacking in inventive ideas and unusual twists and turns. Both Pull My Hair Back (2013) and Oh No (2016) were remarkable records: the former diffident and spare but gorgeously refined, big melodies formed from the leanest of compositions, meanwhile, the latter tendered everything from slowed-down R&B treatments, variations on Madonna’s post-disco debut and its expansive centrepiece It Means I Love You, gliding seamlessly from voguing house twirl to snappy, frenetic Chicago footwork. As such, Lanza has always appeared to live in a world of her own. Her confections here are extraordinary – quite possibly the most immediate and bright of her career to date – beamed in as if from a faraway planet or an alternate reality where the charts are filled with songs more akin to DJ remixes than Top 10 hits.
Indeed, she has a clubber’s ear and a DJ’s understanding of dynamics. Take, for example, the peppy, rattling Face. Rather than smear a lunging, shamelessly catchy pop chorus on top of a four-to-the-floor thud, as any bog-standard pop star tends to do, Lanza smuggles big, fabulous hooks and folds them into the creases of intense, clubby rhythms. Cribbing affectionately from an array of dance styles – the pace and vocal snippets nod to footwork, the warm anchoring synth chords and general looseness allude to 80s freestyle, the combusting breakdown audibly inspired by Dance Mania’s late-80s output – she also pays studious attention to building suspense and releasing tension, dance music’s familiar rise and fall, without coming off as though she’s about to sit an exam on the history of Chicago house: the result is joyous and playful.
You can hear the impressive attention to detail everywhere on All the Time. However, it all would count for nothing if the songs didn’t stick. Fortunately, they do, never overwhelmed by cleverness for cleverness’s sake. Lanza’s shrewd ability to wring distinctive tunes from distinctive sounds yields some wonderfully, surprisingly emphatic songwriting. You start to notice how the little discrete moments and weird textures borrowed from the dancefloor only work with Lanza’s lead vocals, which provide the album with all the subtle if unavoidable melodies. Lick in Heaven’s burbling electronics and glistening synth lead don’t distract, mainly because Lanza’s appearance guides your ears towards the huge hook sitting atop them. Badly hesitantly picks away at a slender, funky R&B chorus; without Lanza’s breathy and luxurious voice, it’d probably fall apart.
In fact, she allows Badly to melt into a fascinating haze of electronics briefly about midway, then returns to the key melody as if nothing’s happened – the effect is fantastic, experimental but never skimping on an arresting pop hook. Like Fire and Over and Over book their vacancies into any available spaces going in your brain from the word go, as unequivocal as they are irresistible: repeatedly troubled by a squeaking noise approaching the kind you get when you scrub a window a little too vigorously, the former’s gorgeous, otherworldly aura remains immensely pleasing to the ear; the juddering synth tremor humming beneath the latter really burrows deep under your skin carried along by a beautifully sensitive performance by Lanza, every verse sounding like a new chorus, the whole thing taking shape with the addition of a simple electronic bassline.
Of course, it further highlights Lanza’s talents as a canny producer, but her restraint makes it easier to focus on her bewitching voice. The lack of any more embellishment than each song needs centres everything on her, as it should: thanks to Lanza’s presence and singular approach, nothing here feels the least bit derivative. When she strips away what little excess there is on the title track (which, like Alexander’s spacey gurgle elsewhere, softly recalls another, earlier female pop futurist, Janet Jackson, circa her 1986 classic Control) and Baby Love, she still comes up with an inviting hook that grabs you: despite not having an identifiable bassline or beat of any meaningful kind, Baby Love’s refrain will be dancing around in your head for weeks. How she constructs such strong melodies from very subtle elements is a mystery. Challenging only in the sense that you struggle to grasp them on first listen, All the Time’s songs, ultimately, never fail to beguile.