This is the time of year when the summer albums starting coming out, offering party anthems for people to waste away the long nights and sweltering heat. But in the case of art-pop quartet SOFTSPOT, their new album belongs more in autumn than in the months of April and May. Akin to Kate Bush’s and The Cure’s early works, Clearing is dark, cool, and even stark at times, yet like the changing of the colors in September and October it is also dazzling to behold.
Opener “Maritime Law” lays the heart-throbbing foundation. The song is beautifully patient, reflecting the quartet’s experience of waiting out a thunderstorm near the ocean. Krautorock vibes reverberate throughout to give the song its mystery, and frontwoman Sarah Kinlaw’s voice mirrors a young Kate Bush and heightens the suspense. “Helen” is similarly gripping, as the dissonant guitars create the haunting soundscape for Kinlaw’s Norse-like fairy tale. On “Whale Song”, SOFTSPOT take a more pensive approach that gradually escalates into a terrific torrent of heavy rhythms. Bryan Keller, Jr. assumes lead vocals, and he guides us deep into the ocean and into the life aquatic.
The most sensational of the darker numbers is “Habits”. Mourning at first before turning into an engrossing, theatrical number, Kinlaw draws the listener into her world. Her voice takes on an operatic quality, soaring above the wonderful instrumentation that would make The Bad Seeds doff their hats in SOFTSPOT’s direction.
There are moments, however, where the sun shines through Clearing. At the crest of this opening is “Touch and Go”, a fantastic dreamgaze number that echoes Slowdive in their prime. The whirling intro is delirious, and it is led by Blaze Bateh’s stuttering drumming and Jonathan Campolo’s electronic bass line, which echoes the heartbeat of a man waiting anxiously for his lover to appear. Just as the dreamy melody engulfs the listener, the song ascends and reaches its euphoric climax, and this point perfectly represents the endless desire for love. Following immediately “Touch and Go” is “Abalone”, a stunning number that reaches mesmerizing levels with Kinlaw’s soft vocals re-telling an unexpected encounter.
It is with “Heat Seeker”, however, where SOFTSPOT have written the album’s highlight and arguably their masterpiece. Like the great innovators and inventors throughout history, the Brooklyn-based band have taken something from the past and advanced it into the future. Eighties-era punk-pop, synth-pop, and New Wave influences glide effortlessly across the track. Add a stirring, dissonant guitar; Kinlaw’s sweltering vocals; a cinematic approach; and a voyeuristic storyline, and “Heat Seeker” is more 2020 than 1980. The song is pure brilliance, and it could (and should) provide the template for future songs. Even more than that, what SOFTSPOT have done is re-write the formula for a great spring/summer album. Nevermind sun-kissed, breezy, anthemic songs. There’s always a place for a record that will absorb its listener into a beautifully stark world, much like what the art-pop auteurs have achieved with Clearing.
SOFTSPOT are Sarah Kinlaw, Bryan Keller, Jr., Blaze Bateh, and Jonathan Campolo.
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