Throughout each song on Small Black’s elegant new album, Limits Of Desire, there exists duelling themes of both an endless search for meaningful partnership, as well as a question of whether that blissful union is even possible in this disconnected, distant age of ours. The striking, symbolic album art epitomizes that unsteady partiality, showing that intimacy is achievable to those who work for it, but only to a certain extent, and exposing that vulnerable side of ourselves always comes with risks and hidden peril.
And while that might be a lot of charged significance to place on a batch of shimmering synth-pop tunes, the Brooklyn quartet invites that type of depth and meaning to be found within their sonic excursions, for they are searching for answers themselves throughout these pleading and poignant numbers.
While the group have moved beyond the moody, dense texture of their stirring debut, New Chain, in favour of a glossy, more up-tempo sound, they still maintain the enthralling pulse that caught the attention of indie club kids back in 2010. The current music climate has been over-saturated with lo-fi bedroom chillwave projects in the subsequent years, which perhaps explains the band’s desire to give their current sound a more expansive, lush production; proving they’ve outgrown their humble Long Island beach-house attic origins. And by pushing Josh Kolenik’s vocals further up in the mix, the songs tell more of a narrative of discovery than their hazy, ambiguous earlier material.
The dynamic sense of promise and possibility that courses through the album’s opening track (and lead single) ‘Free At Dawn,’ suggests that this record could be the perfect soundtrack to the late night tales that unfold after you leave the club alone. But really, this gorgeous, soaring number is perfect for any occasion, and starts the record in a triumphant fashion. But the restless spirit that permeates the album also indicates that the solitary excursions of ‘Free At Dawn’ aren’t enough for the protagonists of these songs (or for us listeners as well). The subject of ‘Canoe’ might be “caught between two shores,” but they have the means to get somewhere better than where they are at, and this record is about that intrepid journey and the inevitable discovery that results from taking that leap of faith.
Echoes of M83′s soaring, pulsating synths colour the ebullient corners of Limits Of Desire, with ‘Canoe,’ ‘No Stranger,’ ‘Breathless,’ and ‘Proper Spirit’ all crafting an inventive updated pastiche to the celebrated French outfit. But while the songs ultimately manage to churn with their own distinctive energy and originality, they occasionally fail to stand out from one another all that much. The tracks wind up forming a different part of the same summer breeze – one that passes by rather innocuously, so that only the feelings are remembered, not the moments themselves.
The fragile dichotomy of passion suggested by the album art is apparent on tenuous love songs like ‘Sophie’ (which is strongly reminiscent of ‘Love My Way’) and ‘Only A Shadow,’ where the objects of affection certainly aren’t what they seem, if they are even there at all. These diaphanous songs illuminate how we often create these ideals in our own minds, then set off on an impossible quest to find these illusory paragons who don’t actually exist, leaving us frustrated, disappointed and ultimately alone, left to face the ills of society on our own.
The album reaches a grand conclusion with the optimistic yearning of the title-track, followed immediately by the doleful tones of ‘Shook Loves,’ which only proves how quickly something good can go so wrong, and how our hearts can be broken far too easily. The vibrant, rhythmic closing number, ‘Outskirts,’ shows just how far the band have taken us over the course of the album, but also gives us a tear-stained map on how to get back to the city – where we must start over again along with the shiny potential ushered in by a new morning, and follow where our hearts lead us from there.