Stylish, '80s-inspired synth and guitar minimalism with a satisfying lyrical depth.
Carla dal Forno's NTS show is usually a repository for the skeletal post-punk, modern cassette-scene obscurities and glowering minimal synth that informs her sound. But there was a moment, in a show last spring, when the London-based musician's romantic side shone through. After Snowy Red's Suicide-esque synth ballad "Baby Tonight," she followed suit with The Psychedelic Furs' 1982 single, "Love My Way" and then The Ronettes' immortal "Be My Baby." This push and pull between the insular and the universal is central to the Australian musician's appeal. It's what makes her second and strongest album, Look Up Sharp, worth returning to again and again.
The most obvious manifestation of this tension is dal Forno's alternation between post-punk pop songs that rely on her vocals and minimalist, instrumental mood pieces. She employed an identical technique on her debut solo album, 2016's You Know What It's Like, but each side of her sound snaps into sharper focus this time around. The four interstitial pieces here include the moody "Hype Sleep," whose earworm bassline compensates for the lack of vocals, as well as the mostly wordless synth reverie "Leaving For Japan," which recalls the stately synth pop of Dip In The Pool. Beyond pacing, other aspects of dal Forno's sound remain unchanged. The queasy synths continue to color in the edges. Nearly every percussive sound is swallowed by dubbed-out echo, nodding to '80s groups like David Cunningham's The Flying Lizards and General Strike. Dal Forno's alto remains expressionless, in cool remove. But as well as highlighting a stronger vocal performance, the album also lays out a satisfying narrative arc.
The album's first half takes a callous approach to relationships. The excellent first single, "So Much Better," is a brutal rumination on a former lover or friend. Over a loping bassline, dal Forno sings, "You were a disaster / I'm glad I caused you pain." A couple songs later, on the languorous dirge "I'm Conscious," the narrator describes a tryst that isn't going anywhere. "So busy talking, you're an educated man / That's not important, at least not for what I've planned," she sneers. Dal Forno's minimalist production style is mirrored by lyrics that revolve around absence—the absence of romance or meaning. On "So Much Better," she "looks up sharp" around every corner in fear of spotting her nemesis. No one's there.
The album's late turn towards cautious optimism is a dramatic shift. On the album highlight, "Took A Long Time," our narrator is in the park as dusk approaches. Even as it grows cold ("I shiver but make no move to leave here"), her icy exterior has started to thaw. The object of her affection "sit[s] so close / yet still so far from my arms," goes the soaring chorus. Things have worked out by the concluding song, which is like a post-punk "Wind Beneath My Wings": "All my needs / I want to tell them / I believe / Someone else sees." It's easily the most romantic song in dal Forno's catalog.
It's a tall order to go from extreme antipathy to unguarded romance over the course of five vocal tracks, but dal Forno has had plenty of practice harnessing opposing forces. Though she's a fierce advocate of music that has no commercial potential, dal Forno's own music has achieved a level of popularity, evidenced by frequent touring and hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. Her music and production is minimal, but deceptively complex—her records get better with each listen. And dal Forno's lyrics, especially on Look Up Sharp, take the stripped-down language of modern fiction and manage to imply far more than they actually say. While her music is hyper-stylized, it never feels contrived. Look Up Sharp neither panders nor willfully obfuscates, residing in a dreamy space in between.
Tracklist01. No Trace
02. Hype Sleep
03. So Much Better
04. Leaving For Japan
05. I'm Conscious
06. Don't Follow Me
07. Heart of Hearts
08. Took A Long Time
09. Creep Out of Bed
10. Push On