“Synthia” opens with a whisper: a bubbling little synth that barely breaks the surface of the speaker as electric guitar chords echo faintly in a far-off canyon. The sounds swell, alternating snare and bass drums beat out a backbone, other synths ripple hesitantly at the edge. A woman’s voice hums into being from fractured noise, resurfacing and disappearing like snippets from some futuristic, mangled voicemail tape. For the next seven minutes, gorgeous vocal lines intertwined with spoken word bursts flow over the plush instrumentation. The track dances, collapses and explodes until it bows out with the beat of a snare drum
This is “Stand and Deliver,” The Jezabels’ version of a pop song. Because yes, it’s catchy and uplifting and addicting as hell.
Pop music, whether or not it appears on a Billboard chart, has a habit of using its immediate appeal as a crutch. Catchy melodies and memorable choruses allow artists and producers to slack off in areas that will go unnoticed. Song structures are stagnant, forgettable lyrics fill in between vocal hooks and the production, while clean, rarely employs the type of sonic detail that modern technology makes possible. “Synthia” spits in the face of these low standards, paying meticulous attention to detail and taking risk after risk without losing a stronghold on the immediate pleasures and accessibility that make pop music so wonderful to listen to.
As if opening their record with a seven-minute, half-spoken-word epic wasn’t enough, The Jezabels follow up “Stand and Deliver” with a track that utilizes guitar lines that sound like jet planes. “My Love Is My Disease” opens with the hum of a bass that ripples threateningly as if to explode into an earthquake while electric guitars crack and ripple with the whirr of a helicopter. A panicky snare rhythm propels the track into a throttling groove, and the guitars shriek against the edges of the soundscape as lead singer Hayley Mary’s vocals float with a barely concealed power through the mix. When the chorus hits, it’s an explosion, and Mary’s voices swells with impressive power.
Powerful moments like this one are scattered across the record’s runtime. “Unnatural,” the most standard pop song on the record, launches into a wordless chorus that’s bigger than any stadium the group could ever fill. “Come Alive” establishes a relentless groove over the course of three minutes only to abandon it for a stomping dissonant freakout. “Pleasure Drive” launches from a sexy ’80s lounge track into a blindingly bright, sky-gazing chorus.
In addition, “Synthia” benefits hugely from the striking perspective on femininity presented through its lyrics. In standout track “Smile,” Hayley Mary seductively half-whispers, “You can whistle at me on the street where I am walking … I’m hardly incorruptible with things I might say yes to,” before flipping the tables: “Don’t tell me to smile / When for all you know I just buried my mother. I’ve been burying my mother for an eternity.” On “A Message From My Mother’s Ground,” Mary ends the gorgeous ballad with a scathing indictment of the modern male need for power in a relationship, lilting that, “You wanna be stronger, stronger, stronger, but not too strong / Lie safely in the middle ground.” The lyrics are consistently fresh, portraying the political through a personal lens while avoiding clichés that wracks artists covering similar content.
In essence, “Synthia” is a record that stretches the pop music format to its potential. Every risk it takes regarding song structure, lyrical turns and production style pays off. It is undoubtedly experimental and yet sacrifices no popular appeal in order to be so. “Synthia” is one of the first truly great records of 2016; here’s to hoping it’s not one of the last.