In Northerly, probably my favourite song on this album, Laura Jean Englert says “… into … my room” to a lover and it is exquisitely uncomfortable. The tension and heat, the mix of need and some undercurrent of anger, is palpable. It’s partly in her voice (low and stripped of overt displays, by contrast with the pert backing voice) and partly in the passive-aggressive lyrics which may or may not be a run of failures or resentments disguised as statements of fact.
Mostly though it’s in the low burbling, slightly agitated, sort of swirling music which never quite commits, or maybe commits all it needs to with guitar ala Robert Smith (or maybe Robin Guthrie) hanging around the synthesiser like it’s waiting for a change of heart or a direct provocation, and drums ala Lol Tolhurst caught halfway between a ripple and wash.
This track is the first part of a run of three songs in the middle of the album which play like the turn in a night out when it is clear that this room, this street or this person has gone from a speculative move to a questionable one.
Which One Are You, slow dances around like it’s lost in its picked acoustic guitar reverie, eyes closed to the warning in the bassline and the truth being sung - “everybody’s done things that they regret, some people change, some people keep hurting their friends … which one are you baby?” – that laps against the keyboards.
Then, as sense returns and figures retreat into the darkness, Telecommunication is heralded by piano and joined by a resigned voice that mixes its message: “keep the line open, I’m not on vacation/I’m never coming home again”. And then it’s gone, in less than 90 seconds.
These songs are prime Laura Jean: dark but not subterranean, pretty but not light, certain in its uncertainty, open but not quite raw. They have a companion piece in the album’s opening track, a kind of teen romance loaded with intent, Press Play, where the synth bed is like breaths released by worn bellows, and the special pleading to a lover caught between doing “right” and doing good is caught up in the messaging of a mixed tape – “my body holds the magic … press play”.
Intriguingly, which is to say, surprisingly but not entirely convincingly, around these songs are others which extend Englert’s playground into retro keyboards sounds, and rhythm box beats that position her somewhere between Yazoo and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, on one side, and the Motels and Cars, on the other.
The title track, Girls On The TV and Lick Your Heart are not exactly bouncy – though all three are shot through with lust enough to put a spring in your step - but their cumulative effect is to present the suggestion of dancing in wide shoulders, driving in cars that still have cassette players and bandmates playing their guitars high on the chests.
Likewise, Touchstone (with its percussion a mix of hand and Linn drums, its keyboards sporting a melodica, and its tone almost breezy), Take Me There (acoustic guitar and Sarah Blasko-like buoyant chorus emerging from swaying verses) and You Make Me Feel (Bratpack movie soundtrack meets late ‘80s Springsteen romanticism) carry a stronger message of outward bound than anything she’s done before – vocally and musically.
So why am I not convinced? I’m not sure that my hesitation here isn’t down to the fact I’ve always found Englert’s minimalist sombreness compelling and I am confused by the retro pop shapes here. A fresh ear could well find this working more broadly, more satisfyingly than what a Laura Jean album has presented before.
With that opening song and mid-album passage of slow burns, and then the surrounding sex-and-pop-and-shadowplay material, Devotion may be exactly what she needs to break out of the critic’s favourite/indie obscurity ghetto. I’d not begrudge that.