Naming a pop album Voices leaves things pretty open-ended, just as naming a song “Fall in Love” does, so we have to assume that Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter do it intentionally. The upstate-based duo behind Phantogram have been offering up the album — out today via Republic Records — in pieces for several months, releasing a four-song EP in September, the single “Bill Murray” a few weeks ago, and the full album streaming on NPR February 11th. While this staggered sequence is standard in 2014, the album as a whole thrives on the isolation of parts. Over and over Barthel and Carter achieve an effect of bodilessness: eyes, ears and, of course, voices disconnected from people; string solos interspersed with pulsing electronic beats; silence ripping into noise. These isolations and cutoffs open the music up to free associations, unburdening the songs and leaving them buoyant.
That’s not to say Phantogram lacks control of the music. They are very good at controlling editorial impulses – to overlayer, to overemote, to overdo any one thing. Phantogram has been categorized as having elements of electronic pop, hip-hop, and shoegaze, and all are present here sonically, but it is the restraint aspect of shoegaze that dominates the mood on Voices – music that stirs something nameless and internal, without having to move a muscle, shed a tear, or crack a smile. The nameless feeling locates itself somewhere in the liminal space between the senses and the intellect.
Most of the song titles are clichés: Nothing But Trouble, Never Going Home, Fall in Love, The Day You Died, Howling at the Moon, My Only Friend… even Bill Murray is a cliché. Listening to that track you begin to see Phantogram’s metonymy at work. They’ll use an image or a phrase that everyone has some attachment to as a stand in for a much larger and sketchier concept. “[W]e always pictured a sad Bill Murray for the visuals of that song,” Carter told The Atlantic, which premiered the song on February 4th (The Atlantic, NPR, Bill Murray… makes you wonder about the intended audience). Of course, the song isn’t about Bill Murray the person, but qualities associated with roles he’s played – melancholic, lonely, both bemused and amused by mortality. The opening chords of “Bill Murray” are eerily similar to Band of Horses’ “The Funeral,” and certainly death plays its part on Voices. Barthel and Carter are only slightly past thirty, giving them the perspective to consider their reflections in broken mirrors without losing the airiness of their pop.
The lyrics are deceptively simple and vague. Just when you think you might float away on dreamy synths and Barthel’s light vocals, there are lines such as, “Bad dreams never affect me / I’m not afraid of the concrete” that make you wonder at the tension she’s creating between that floating, liminal space, and the ground (“Bad Dreams”). Consistent, rhythmic percussion make the songs danceable, or at least intensely swayable. Comparisons to the xx are easy to make.
The best tracks are found at the core.“Fall in Love” features Barthel on lead vocals and is seductive and orchestral. When she sings, “Fall in me, ” it’s less of a romantic metaphor, but more like a command for something physical and definite.
“Never Going Home” raises the stakes. The opening of the gorgeous chorus on the refrain “If this is love / I’m never going home,” sung by Carter, stands out immediately. This is the first time real people appear on Voices, where the objects of affection and disaffection are not parts or amalgamations of parts, and you can see why they prefer to hang in the ether: “Momma, you screamed to me after all these years / Daddy you point the gun / Ah, this holiday’s fun.”
They handle the darkness with a light touch, and intersperse the gloomier tracks with more energetic, throbbing, or ambulatory ones. Voices is an album you’ll want to hear over and over. It is easy enough to lose yourself in its mesmerizing rhythms, to follow a hand or a smile or a gun down an unexpected path in your own mind. And just as easy to feel comfortable not knowing what to call it at all.
Review by Melanie Broder. Follow her on Twitter @melbroder.