by JEAN-LUC MARSH
One thing should be made explicitly clear to anyone embarking on a trek through the somber terrain that is Untogether: happiness will not be found here. Rather, Blue Hawaii’s sophomore effort takes a sharp turn away from the direction of their sun-dappled debut, exploring the dark side of the dichotomy that is electronic music. Untogether is not an album saturated with Balearic club bangers or infectious hooks. Over the course of eleven songs, a chilly aesthetic is cultivated with the help of sparse, prickly arrangements and distorted vocals. Untogether uses the chrome-coated, impersonal side of electronica to alienate the listener, leaving them cold and alone in the often barren soundscape.
Blue Hawaii, composed of Alex Cowan and vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston, is a product of the burgeoning experimental music scene in Montreal that has already developed the talents of artists such as Grimes, Purity Ring, and Majical Cloudz. Traces of mutual influences abound on Untogether, which evokes the frigid, nocturnal ambience of the less upbeat tracks on Grimes’ Visions. Blue Hawaii diverges from its contemporaries in that it does not try to create a confection that might enjoy crossover success. Strong choruses (such as Purity Ring’s) will not be found on Untogether, nor will rhythms anywhere near the occult anthems of Grimes. Untogether, unified in its bleak tone, is an album that does not try to shelter the listener from the icy Canadian winter.
In the span of five minutes, album opener “Follow” goes through three distinct phases. Beginning with synths fading ominously between the background and foreground like ghosts floating in and out of existence, and the unintelligible vocals of Standell-Preston doused in reverb, the first two minutes of “Follow” form a bracing, surrealist nightmare. The next phase of the track introduces gentle percussion as well as discernible lyrics. Standell-Preston coos over the now fully present synthesizers, expressing her laments in an ethereal tone that hovers over the brooding rhythm. The final sonic shift occurs with less than a minute of “Follow” remaining. Standell-Preston’s spectral voice gives way to a twilight zone-esque thirty seconds of chirps and echoes. The introduction is now complete, and having endured the eerie tumble down the rabbit hole, the listener arrives in a dystopian wonderland devoid of any color.
“Try To Be” garnered early praise, and for good reason. It is the most immediate track on Untogether, with lyrics that remain coherent across the entire span of the song. The simplistic guitar rhythm that guides the track is the closes thing to warmth on Untogether, an earthly sound in an album saturated with the gloomy reverberations of artificiality.
The third and fourth tracks, “In Two” and “In Two II,” coalesce into one continuous melody. Both portions form the most transfixing song on the album, guided by a beat that would fit on tamer varieties of house music. This is the closest one will ever get to dancing on Untogether, and it should be relished. The two tracks are the last flickers of light on the album, one final gasp for air before diving into the inky deep that Untogether is a denizen of. “It doesn’t hurt / It only makes you sicker than me / Wiser / The end to us,” sings Standell-Preston in an eerie detachment, before the final percussion passes, and Untogether sinks beneath the surface.
Beginning with “Sweet Tooth” and continuing through the end of the album, Untogether fades away into its own aesthetic. The bleakness that compounds with each song only depresses the listener more. Despite the deployment of several catchy gimmicks across the seven-song span (the scatterbrained, metallic synths on “Sierra Lift” and the ghostly, post-tropical sounds on “Reaction II”), attention is never regained, and Untogether ultimately succumbs to its own spell. The sounds of alienation and depression are portrayed so effectively, that Untogether becomes less of an album to listen to, but a soundtrack to one’s internal struggles.
Untogether will never find itself on a summer playlist, nor any compilation meant to be played at an occasion with even a hint of happiness, but that is not where its value lies. It is intensely personal, tangled in the sentiments that privately plague each of us. Untogether is meant for those cold, murky nights in which we feel completely and utterly alone. [B-]
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Listen to the album at Pitchfork Advance