By Robin Smith | 2 December 2013
Summer Valentine recalls the deceitful serenity of indie pop’s slightest masterpieces, the ones you might put on for a chill, dimmed-light evening without full disclosure of their gloomy significance. It takes after Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp (2012), an outwardly calmed record of personal musings on homelessness, later related for a sympathetic backing band, and the fleeting conflicts Sufjan Stevens dealt with on Seven Swans (2004). Like those artists, Tica Douglas’ record has the feel of a song cycle without ever committing to being one. Its themes are vague, more meditative than explicit, but it secretly harbours tales of displacement and a servitude to fate that’s impossible to shake. Hence Summer Valentine: Douglas asserts her record as one of confused internal traumas, of the kind of seasonal dislocation that comes from making and experiencing music in too many places, and over an excessively long period of time. The result is a fascinating collection of songs that lives within, but also climbs out of, the conventions of a great indie pop record.
Douglas’ vision for Summer Valentine was in part to recreate her summer on the coast of Maine, where she wrote the record. The landscape is rendered resplendently in the music videos that supplement it, but what really makes her songs sting is their use of pathetic fallacy. Storm clouds gather really fucking consistently over them; her minor key has a blindsiding effect, consuming songs and eating them up whole. “Dark and Dreary” succumbs most consciously to the ominous skyline, built around grey guitar riffs and the hushed backing chorus that swims through its bridge. The arrangement captures the complex-but-subliminal vibe Douglas’ indie contemporaries are so good at, but her version sounds purposely reduced, as if this song is just another thing the darkness touches. Douglas gives “Dark and Dreary” over completely–like, it could win a CMG Award for 2013’s Most Surprisingly Eerie Use of Banjo–but its most devastating moment comes in her despondent prayer: “I don’t wanna die, as the bullet rushes in / The knife plunges forward as I choose not to swim.” Summer Valentine rests on her decision, in this moment, to leave the house and instead sit in the eye of the storm.
“Dark and Dreary” never actually reaches its apocalyptic sweet spot, and it doesn’t need to. Douglas’ dramas are never self-aggrandizing; her power comes in defining, rather than amplifying. Her idea of a swan song is the gorgeous, feedback-cosy, xylophone-supplanted “Song for Sharon,” its final declaration nothing more than a plea to “Come on home.” The guitar-twinkling “Lost Boy,” the record’s most certifiably chill moment, is rendered plainly, retaining its sweet instrumental relationships even at its climax. “G,” a plainspoken love song, is told in the past tense, distanced from the events that instigated it. Its first line, “I shook your hand,” recalls the exact moment of romantic osmosis, but accepts its place in the past with indifference. Douglas’ acoustic plucking here is so immediate, and so earnestly spotty, that it feels unrehearsed—it’s the sound of love at first sight fading into reminiscence. Whether playing songs of defeat or her more twee material, Douglas presents her emotions with an admirable tactfulness.
Despite being released at the beginning of this year’s overwhelming summer, I can see Summer Valentine being one of January’s best hangover records, for before the musical shit-storm arrives and while there’s enough time to let something slower and more peacefully intimated sink in. But I can also see it latching on for the year to come; Douglas’ music isn’t thirst-quenching, like whatever four-chord jangle pop record that’s going to pop up for a month and disappear. Summer Valentine doesn’t know when exactly it wants to exist—again, look at its title, hear the songs, listen to those sadcore lyrics—and so its companionship is more than just reassuring. For all its graciousness, it has songs like the sharp, brashly strummed “Forever Love,” or its title track, a spacey, vacating guitar composition that recalls Jeff Buckley, with a lethargic percussive march as its kicker. I’m describing indie pop, but I want to call it stoner rock; Douglas’ music is supremely accessible, but the more morbid it gets, the more compelling it becomes. To get a sense of Summer Valentine, you have to put those two words together and watch them fall apart.