Review: Pupil by Year of the Dragonfly

The more the possibilities for self-directed musicianship multiply, the more blindingly corporate radio fodder becomes. It’s difficult sometimes to consider mainstream pop as anything other than advertisement, a smorgasbord of easy feelings with which casual listeners saddle themselves. Even bands with the indiest intentions that filter into Clear Channel soon find themselves regurgitating smoothly packaged products. The single hasn’t evolved at its core in recent decades, but is perpetually recycled with increasingly desperate tones. The beats get needier, the posturing all the more absurd.

To take that fossilized pop structure and recast it in a disaffected temper could easily be an exercise in lofty, unprovocative irony. Fortunately, Year of the Dragonfly has little interest in a deliberately blasé performance. Instead, the newly-minted Denver duo works castoff pop scraps into lush hypnagogic progressions throughout the length of their debut LP. By blasting apart the bones of familiar forms with an uneasy vapor, Pupil (Tinyamp, 2012) shakes pop loose from its sequined exoskeleton and, at its zenith, splits itself open to birth fresh methods of songcraft.

While Year of the Dragonfly’s slow dream-pop might evoke for some a lo-fi Low, a compressed Atlas Sound or a deflated, nightmarish Stars, their aesthetic techniques more closely mimic what The Knife did to synth-pop. The Dreijer siblings didn’t just drape dance music in black lace and obsidian glitter; they infected it with ghosts from which it will never recover. Year of the Dragonfly haunts its own work similarly. Tracks like “Horses” and “Saline” follow straightforward, familiar structures, but fill in the pieces with muddy, clamped-off vocals, toy synthesizers, and quietly threaded guitar lines. The effect is akin to seeing the shape of a famous painting stitched together with musty thrift store textiles. It’s uncanny and it smells a little strange.

It’s slanted praise to say that the best parts of Pupil leave us wanting on its lesser tracks, but moments like “The Beast” and the record’s title track do little but stew inside limp keyboard demo beats and uncommitted vocals. As aloof as Dragonfly’s aesthetic might be, it can’t sustain songs without the emotional kernel suspended in its dreamy solution. Push too hard on the “bad” euro-pop front and the haze breaks. Fortunately, the record exercises restraint on most of its tracks, perfectly rendering the steamy mourning of “T-rain” or “Mother Mountain” with its startling, percussive chimes. The LP continues to engage even when both vocalists lay silent for a track and the bass takes front and center on the miniaturized waltz “Foreign Land.” So long as there’s some nucleus to chew up, however slowly, the record moves.

At Pupil‘s midpoint, it breaks from its choked demeanor into “Black Friday,” a shimmering rift of synthesized choirs and barely perceptible reversed drums. Madeline Johnston’s mutilated chirps strike a stunning contrast with the hordes of digital angels that sing behind her. The track meshes unbridled effulgence and strangled inarticulacy to carve its own subversive spirituality, an invisible comfort realized in helplessness. It’s too much and not nearly enough all at once, all of the time.

For its finish, Pupil arcs itself up into a questioning poise, the appropriately-titled “What Now?” which grates its quietly demanding lead melody into vocoded shingles. Human and inhuman noise split off and run parallel; the effect alienates the listener while retaining just enough warmth to suggest a backhanded invitation. Its eerie drone epitomizes the inverted pop that Year of the Dragonfly has ultimately cultivated. Rather than feigning baseline emotion to secure listeners, the music masks itself in discomforting veneers to eat away at the institutions in which it is couched. Pupil is pop for those who were beginning not to believe in pop anymore, a warm, sick fever dream, an organism whose mutated parts cast fascinating shadows.

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