Cigarettes After Sex Strike Straight Through the Heart With Ethereal ‘Cry’ Album
Cigarettes After Sex play an esceptionally distinctive style of music, originally pitched as “ambient pop,” the sheer, hazy, dreaminess of their music is more accurately fitting of the “dream pop” descriptor. The band scored a sleeper hit, “Nothing’s Going to Hurt You Baby,” on their 2012 “I” EP and went on to release their self-titled debut studio album in 2017. Having cultivated their already staggeringly unique sound, they’ve just turned out their most poignant, emotive, and otherworldly record to date, with “Cry.” Singer Greg Gonzalez produced and engineered the album, with mixing by Craig Silvey, who has worked with Arcade Fire and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Their Nighttime recording sessions in a mansion on the Spanish island of Mallorca have yielded this set of songs as dramatically inspired as one would expect.
“Don’t Let Me Go” sets the mood for the whole album in just the opening bars — languid and seductively sluggish, ringing like an extended whisper, recalling early Beach House. The band plays as if they’ve been slowed down ever so slightly, tapping into an elusive feeling rarely captured so expressively. Gonzalez is typically described as sounding androgynous, but a far more accurate description would be feminine. There’s no androgyny here — he simply sounds like a woman, which is one of the most marvelous things about the band, allowing them to subvert and transcend norms, sending everything up in the air, making you question the very workings of the world. There’s no forced falsetto, no queer affectaions, just a bearded man who totally sounds like a girl. The lyrics could hardly be simpler: “Come to me now… Stay by my side,” and they’re perfect as they are, a consummate demonstration of concentrated emotion, a temporary feeling stretched out sonically in accordance with the space it takes up in the psyche.
Gonzalez and crew ease naturally deeper into the established aura on “Kiss It Off Me.” The drums strike slightly behind the anticipated beat, while the guitars gracefully sputter fuzzy outpourings of notes that blend together in an ethereal haze, under such suggestive lyrics as “If you’re going to break my heart / This is a good start.” The songs flow like seamless, sequential thoughts, with the following song, “Heavenly,” featuring Gonzalez singing, “Touch me with a kiss,” as the band continues with their usual dreaminess, justifying the song’s title, and taking their craft a bit further, with an especially instantaneously effective chorus.
Gonzalez seems to be desperately head over heels in love, turning out song titles like “Your the Only Good Thing in My Life,” with such unadorned yet incisive lyrics as “Everything is wrong but it’s all alright.” Cigarettes After Sex have managed to attain an unprecedented level of delicacy in their music, with every instantaneous sound striking as if it hovers just above the surface, and vanishes in a mist. The music stays unabashedly sensuous, with the next song titled “Touch.” Here, Gonzalez sings with a breathy, raspy strain that accentuates the perpetually sluggish stylings of the instrumentation, making for an even more emotionally impactful listen than the preceding songs. He adds afterthoughts to the aforementioned sentiments, singing, “I want to do everything that you want to do / To tell you the truth.” The album title comes up for the first time, as he continues, “I listen to you cry all night through the telephone.” His utterances resonate as blithe renderings of dramatically charged feelings, and the band carries them along with the most apt sensibility imaginable.
“Hentai” stands out for its curious title, with scant ostensible pertinence in the lyrics. It’s merely another expressive love song, with a refrain of “I’ve been waiting for you to fall for me, and let me in your life.” Such unstilted sincerity, expressed in a voice that seems the ideal conveyance of such sentiments, can be crushing in its severity, despite the soothing, subdued tune it’s set to. The seeming arbitrariness of the title “Hentai” makes it all the more brilliant, suggesting an infatuation affecting its subject in a way that somehow ends up conjuring Japanese sexual animation. Next comes the title track, which finds the band taking off slightly more vigorously than typical, although within their distinctly relaxed parameters. The vocals are as languorous as ever, and the lyrics as perpetually smitten, with lyrics like “But I can’t help the way I feel,” that would come across as irritating platitudes in virtually any other voice, but ring as the unblemished sound of sincerity in Gonzalez’s.
Next comes the entirely unsurprisingly titled “Falling in Love.” For the first time, the refrain of “Falling in love with all of my heart” strikes as if Gonzalez has taken his heart-on-sleeve straightforwardness a bit too far, because these lyrics are simply too egregiously uncreative to pass, unless you happen to be either an unfluent foreigner or a fantastically innocent and unworldly soul. Finally, “Pure” finds Gonzalez sounding somehow even more feminine than before. After nine songs of consistent, dreamy haze, this takes the lag further still, and functions to commemorate the whole stretch with some more conventionally melodic guitar phrasings than the nebulous sounds that characterize the bulk of the album.
There are few albums more effortlessly cohesive than “Cry.” The entire record runs like a sustained meditation on a specific feeling. The complete disregard for embellishing lyrics with any filigree makes the songs all the more appealing, as they are a rare expression of unmoderated surrender to emotions. Like the more R&B-tinged outfit Rhye, Cigarettes After Sex are a truly revolutionary band. For generations, male vocalists have reached for the heightened expressive grace of female singers, but singers like Gonzalez turn everything on its head. The utter unconcern for adherence to gender norms, and the ability to defy them in such a convincing and appealing way, puts Gonzalez in a league of very few. Moreover, the band plays as if guided by a vision, so thoroughly realized that its musical expression seems to just exude naturally. With the love-drunk lyrics complemented by the immaculately dreamy sounds, “Cry” is an album for the ages.
“Cry” is available Oct. 25 on Apple Music.