There’s something classic, and iconically American about the cover of Twin Shadow’s new record. There stands the project’s mastermind George Lewis Jr., pristine rockabilly pompadour combed beyond perfection, wrapped in a worn leather jacket, the look across his face somewhere between pretty boy smugness and outsider vulnerability. In all its nostalgic simplicity, it almost immediately locates Lewis in a long and romantic mythology of bad boys, stretching back at least as far as James Dean. Lewis’ claim that Confess was inspired by a motorcycle accident, self-admitted fast living and debauchery on the road, even his slick, understated confidence at shows–all the pieces are there. And as personas go, Twin Shadow’s is a well-crafted one. More importantly though, talking about it offers a helpful introduction to a record that lives up to the all the grandeur that posturing conjures up.
Download: Twin Shadow – “Golden Light”
Confess comes to us two years after Twin Shadow’s debut, Forget, and with it comes an evolution on just about every frontier. In place of Forget‘s dazed, bedroom rendering of post-punk and new wave, we find Lewis embracing a different side of the ’80s. The cover artwork for Forget finds Lewis half-obscured by a double exposure, brushing his hair back sullenly. Naturally, the visible contrast between the two records’ packaging is echoed powerfully in the music, and Forget finds Lewis center-stage, crafting big, anthemic, redemptive songs. “You Can Call Me On” starts off with a riff that might trick you into thinking The Cars came up on shuffle, before breaking down into a crunchy drum-machine stomp, steeped in waves of synth, that sounds undeniably Prince-ish. “And I don’t give a damn about your dreams, the whole world is falling at the seams,” he sings, “but that’s what it’s supposed to do”. These are still love songs, and not without a healthy dose of world-weary gloom. What’s most apparent here though, is that the scope has expanded, apparently to globe-encompassing proportions.
And yet, it’s not as if this music is indistinguishable as having come from the same author. The songwriting is poignant, the love songs complex and the protagonist often hard to sympathize with. And even as Confess aims for sky-scraping glory, it still gives the impression of human fingerprints rather than artificial gloss. Album opener “Golden Light” even seems to pick up where Forget left off, opening with dreamy textures and far-off guitar peels, and Lewis singing in the hushed, low-register tones that characterized his debut. A minute in though, the chorus drops in, accompanied by a big, clattering drumline and another impossibly big-sounding love metaphor: “Some people say there’s a golden light, and if I chase after you, doesn’t mean that it’s true” Seventy seconds or so into the record and the conversation about love has already turned metaphysical. Though it leads with the same somber, atmospheric sonic textures that dominated Forget, it quickly explodes into an unmistakable statement, namely that Twin Shadow is now operating on a substantially bigger stage.
By the time we’ve reached the album’s centerpiece “Five Seconds”, Lewis has launched himself fully into ’80s anthem territory. This is glorious heartbreak, Judd Nelson fist-pump, Cusack with a boombox stuff. The chords in the chorus even vaguely resemble “Don’t Stop Believing”. The comparisons these songs draw are pretty much inevitable given the territory they’re touching on, but they also feel warranted, earned by sheer songwriting chops. “Run My Heart” conjures mid-’80s Police powerfully, before bursting into “this isn’t love” with all the tormented grandiosity of Robert Smith or Morrissey. And still, this feels less like blatant imitation of those icons, and more like a reverent reinterpretation. Sonically, nearly every song evokes the big-budget excess of the early MTV era, but not without refracting those sounds, reshaping them into something that feels purposefully brittle and homemade.
Lewis’ habit of borrowing and reappropriating is always in service of creating a feeling, or telling a story, rather than simply evoking some cheap version of John Hughes nostalgia. Lewis’ songs construct the character he’s discussed in interviews, and even if that aspects of that persona feel constructed, it hardly feels disingenuous. These are engrossing, occasionally self-effacing songs that explore the rocky territory between love and lust, between starry-eyed yearning and the kind of egotism that can make someone feel almost completely emotionally inaccessible. At times, he’s breaching straight up asshole territory. Most of these stories end in ambivalence or frustration. He’s “in love with the unlovable”, he’ll cry when the movie’s over. “Before the night is through, I’ll say three words”, he tells an anonymous female counterpart on “I Don’t Care”, before elaborating, “I’ll probably mean the first two and regret the third”. It’s a trick he pulls again and again throughout the album, allowing tragedies to masquerade as triumphs if you’re not listening hard enough, and constantly pulling the rug out from under what sounds like genuine romance. Confess works so well precisely because it’s a confession, because it centers on internal conflict, even as it draws its sonic inspiration from an era where massive straightforwardness often trumped subtle complexity.
Download: Twin Shadow – “Run My Heart”
Forget was, appropriately enough, about forgetting, a beautifully self-contained meditation on love lost. It’s calling card song was about a daydream-turned-nightmare– love and darkness, ghosts following him. On the dark new-wave ballad “Slow”, Lewis told us “I don’t want to believe in love”, and it would be hard not to notice the same protagonist behind the grand cynicism of Confess.
But sheer ambition is what separates this record. Twin Shadow is one among dozens, probably hundreds of bands to, as Pitchfork once put it, “mine the lush, romantic sounds of the 1980s”, but of the two sometimes indistinguishable strains of music to which Twin Shadow is indebted–melancholy, bedroom pop and grandiose, earth-shattering stadium staples– the latter seems the most audacious to tackle by a wide margin, especially assuming the artist in question still wants to make something authentically evocative. Songs that hearken back to heroes as colossal as Bruce, Peter Gabriel, Prince, or say, early U2 tend to fall flat on their face. The ones that manage to sound at once redemptive and epic, and still approach the emotional depth and complexity of a “With or Without You” or “When Doves Cry” are extremely few and extremely far between. Confess achieves that rare balance a handful of times, and somehow, does so without feeling too alienatingly different than its predecessor. Sure it’s a big, powerful record. But it’s also so distinctively a product of Lewis’ voice, so clearly his record. At the center of these songs, just as on the cover, stands George Lewis Jr.– hero, antihero, great American songwriter.