I do not claim to understand how the record industry works in 2017, but I am fairly certain that putting an album out as a digital-only release, apart from a US vinyl pressing, doesn’t help with its exposure. As the year wore on, I remained perplexed that this glorious record hadn’t picked up more of an audience, but its relative obscurity may not have helped. Add in the obvious narrative around Coffman’s split from Dave Longstreth, with whom she was also a musical partner in Dirty Projectors, and it’s a wonder that people weren’t falling over themselves to offer up comparisons of this and the self-titled release by her former band, now essentially a solo entity. It’s worth saying, ‘Dirty Projectors’, with its not entirely gracious response to events, is pretty hard work and everything that ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ wasn’t. Intriguingly, Longstreth produced ‘City Of No Reply’ and was heavily involved in various aspects of its creation back in 2015, prior to a terminal rift in their working relationship opening up between its completion and that of his own record. Perhaps the twattiest line on that album being “What I want from art is truth / What you want is fame,” all part of a torrent of sniping that Coffman didn’t know was coming until its release was announced to the world. As a result of that timeline, however, it’s wise to detach all of that baggage from this record before listening.
There is so much to enjoy here, rising out of a love of nineties R&B and seemingly obsessed with glorious, strident melodies. Opener ‘All To Myself’ will feel like safe ground for fans of Coffman’s previous work, with languid synths and a lackadaisical beat doused in reverb. It’s an incredibly strong way to set out your stall but the quality never relents. ‘No Coffee’ follows, an emphatically breezy track whose ebullient, Seventies radio sheen is instantly endearing. And they keep on coming. ‘Dark Night’ has those late-Nineties squelchy beats and what sound a little like steel-drum stabs, while ‘If You Want My Heart’ is a poised ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the Mary J Blige / TLC inhabited landscape of twenty years ago.
For ‘Under The Sun’, we’re back in vintage pop-rock radio territory, occupying similar ground to the recent trio of fabulous solo records from Eleanor Friedberger. The title track, meanwhile, has a dancehall nod and wouldn’t feel ridiculous with Wyclef Jean shouting ‘Shakira, Shakira’ over the top of it. The winding rhythm is a delight and the chorus an instant earworm. What you’re listening to is an expert pop album with a meticulously judged pace and a carefully crafted diversity. I still find myself marvelling at the trajectory ‘City Of No Reply’ takes over its forty-six minutes.
‘Nobody Knows’ follows an undulating synth line and feels like a critique of our permanently online culture: “I sit fixed, scrolling through words and pictures, like I’m paralysed / Nobody knows, nobody knows how I feel / Nobody sees my soul.” The piano figure with which it concludes is pretty special too. Closer ‘Kindness’ is built around a distorted organ line and talks of how “this love wants not to hinder our evolution.” One can only hope that, despite its confusingly low-key release, this marks the start of a long and similarly exquisite solo carer where that development can occur.