Absolving Synth Sins
The blogosphere circa 2012 is awash with synthesizers, with countless iterations and evocations of airy '80s pop and early-'90s R&B. Hugo Manuel has heard plenty of them, and not approved. The leader of shape-shifting UK indie outfit Jonquil (whose albums have gone from misty folk to stadium pop) and the owner of a solo project named Chad Valley, Manuel is a huge synthesizer nerd; the kind of guy that knows the electrical workings of a late-'80s Yamaha inside-out.
So, after hearing bright and shiny '80s synths used in fuzzy, muggy, washed-out, lo-fi '10s recordings, Manuel set out to make an album that worked with the plasticky, glossy-finish synths of the old era on their own terms, and on their own footing. Young Hunger is his attempt to make something that doesn't just summon slick recordings, but actually sounds slick.
Written in so much text, Manuel's fastidiousness to recreating sumptuous synth-pop probably makes it seem like utter eggheadery; like this is some empty exercise in style sans substance, a vacuous shrine to the records of his childhood. But the great thing about Young Hunger is how it uses his obsession with the gloss of '80s new-romantic power-ballads, late-'80s pop-house, and early-'90s R&B slow-jams as its emotional starting-point; his personal feelings for the sound colliding with his personal feelings, the album's bright and shiny songs heaving with unexpected emotion.
Manuel knows that pop-songs can be a place for profundity writ with simplicity; when he sings "tell all your friends/tell everyone/all I want to think about is you," is a piece of bubblegum pop fluff sung with such sincerity that it has the feeling of universality. Young Hunger is about those youthful staples of young-hearted pop: falling in love and falling out of love, and all the variations in between. It's also about being in love with sound; the joyousness of the record's major keys and tendency towards uplift speaking of the obvious happiness Manuel felt at making this record, at working with these synths.
To bring these sentiments to life, Manuel recruited an army of guest vocalist. Rap and R&B records have been so fetishistic about the 'collabo' as to turn it into a genre necessity; making it seem not like artistic choice, but crass cross-promotional exercise. Perhaps because of this, indie records usually wear their guests semi-anonymously on the liner notes; usually recruiting players into the ensemble, not giving them star-turns out front. But, here, Manuel stages a series of duets, roping in a host of Very Special Guests, including new-wave beefcake Twin Shadow, choirboy warbler Active Child, oddball pop conceptualist Glasser, and Swedish sweetheart El Perro del Mar.
Just like the record's synth-recreationist set-up, reading in black-and-white the run of guests may make it seem like a novelty grab, or something that'd make the disc feel roulette-like, a rotating cast that could make it —as with so many commercial R&B and rap records— make the whole thing feel like a compilation. But, again, Manuel uses a questionable musical trope deftly, with the range of guest voices adding further emotional layers to the songs. These are blow-ins freestyling some lame voice, but voices used to play different characters.
It works best, of course, in the realm of male/female duet. On "Fall 4 U," Manuel and Glasser spar against a spartan slow-jam, in which the suggestive synths and back-and-forth are filled with spy-movie allusions; this the moment of revelation when the hero realizes he's in deep, and deep in love. And the awesome "Evening Surrender" drops the pace and dims the lights even further, there both smoldering sexuality and undeniable sadness as Manuel and El Perro del Mar play out lyrical foreplay tinged with the ache of isolation, and both the desire and fear that comes with actual human interaction.
"Evening Surrender" is one of the year's true standout songs, and a perfect symbol of Young Hunger as a whole. On an initial impression, it sounds like someone building a Quiet Storm power-ballad that Tori Spelling could've lost her television virginity to. But further submersion reveals a whole world of very real and complicated emotions; the added vocal providing conflict and contrast to Manuel's own giddy falsettos. So much music circa 2012 —so much synth-pop revivalism— feels like a work of isolationism, here, Manuel makes it about connection.
Record Label: Cascine
Release Date: October 30, 2012