‘maybe she’s just pieces of me/ you’ve never seen…’ (Tori Amos, ‘Tear in Your Hand’)
When last we left him, Devonte Hynes was busy releasing a sophomore album for his more famous moniker, Lightspeed Champion (Life is Sweet, Nice to Meet You, 2010). In my review, I noted Hynes’ relentlessness as well as his innate genius of mixing pop and rock vis-à-vis his slavish love of pure forms keeping him in one skin too often. The talented twenty-five year old hails from Britain but has been so formalized in the mid West that you’d be excused for mistaking him as American. His debut album (Falling off the Lavender Bridge) was a solid introduction to his aesthetic, which is quickly catching on: he’s been writing a lot recently for Solange Knowles (Beyonce’s sister) and Florence and The Machine.
A year later and he has reinvented into something totally new. So new and mysterious that I’m not sure how to describe Blood Orange other than to say that Hynes has finally gotten that complimentary swagger he desperately needed. Or, maybe just gotten in touch with his depressed, feminine side. Like all compulsive-driven musicians, he’s tossing off ideas that others can only dream of inventing. Coastal Grooves is interestingly configured because its evidence of his own growth as an artist receptive to openness.
The immediacy of the guitar work coalescing with electronic beats on the opener, Forget It shows that Hynes has been hard at work. It’s a simple song, most notable for one line (‘I am not your savior baby girl’) sung many times over but its sheer minimalism is pleasing. Instantly Blank inserts gorgeous aside vocals that nearly steal the show. Hynes has stated that his reference for the album were basically drag queens of the very distant past and the cover shot for the album is indicative of this. He has stated also though that it was not meant to be a personal perspective from him on the issue that would arise and that’s where he runs into a few problems. All art is viewed through specific lenses and the author cannot extract himself from the written or sung word so Coastal Grooves is a definite balancing act.
Things are most balanced when Hynes rips away the self-efficacious masks his characters wear: the bluesy solution fronting Champagne Coast, the stark propulsion facing the doomed girl in Can We Go Inside Now? Or when he’s channeling transgender influences in an attempt to tie sound and sexuality together. A sense of sadness perforates the album as well but this can be tricky and he either hits or misses with the ten tracks, depending on the mood that’s set. It doesn’t help that his dissection of pop as Blood Orange doesn’t loosen up the techno and dance beats as expected. He instead uses a lot of dubs and minimalism, which work to an extent but doesn’t provide transcendence. Nor is there much wry humor either—something he’s provided in spades as Lightspeed Champion. More results like Madame Van Damme and Galaxy of the Lost would’ve done this project a hell of a lot good.
Coastal Grooves doesn’t exactly push through its intended denizens or reveal the hidden: Hynes tries hard to replicate the queer night-life but ends up with something that sounds more like the cool, straight guy’s perspective instead. The overlapping jazzy texture that dominates the record is his stamp but there’s little connection to the source material in its actualized form. Coastal Grooves is a highly romanticized look at multi-dimensional personalities to be sure but it’s just not them telling these tales. It’s fascinating in parts but that’s because Hynes is the type of nerdy genius that enthralls…which leads to another issue. You’ll listen to this project and end up forgetting everything else except his silky voice and solid grooves. The artistry involved though is too medicinal because he’s taken the excitable and loquacious and simply cleansed them with sterile normality. It’s a little lost on him that people go to clubs to enjoy a bit of escapism…to become something temporarily that they cannot be during the day. To experience the excitement of strangers, to flirt unashamedly or to merely unwind with the besties and bitch about work.
Yes, Hynes does well to accompany his subjects into their world but he’s nailed them to a wall of intense scrutiny without as much as any of the aforementioned joys or even a Cosmopolitan to sip on while waiting for last call. This wide-eyed Q&A wearies after a while because, seriously, who wants to focus on their problems while their having fun? Hynes seems to think otherwise and I’m guessing from now on they’ll only have him tag along because he’s the designated driver.