It’s been four years since the last Nite Jewel album, but the figure behind the project, Ramona Gonzalez, has been quietly busy. Normally known for her lo-fi, ’80s-influenced take on synth-pop, Gonalazez has released the album 29 under the alias Maia, a rumbling collection of electronic pieces held together by rich bass and wordless vocals. Meanwhile, this year’s collaborative EP Euphoria with rapper Droop-E under the AMTHST name saw her explore the foggier end of hip-hop beats and R&B performance. Both are strikingly different from the music she’s made a career of as Nite Jewel, but Liquid Cool sees her integrate these divergences into an album that swaps pop instinct for an obtuseness that’s aloof but alluring.
The most immediate thing about Liquid Cool is how much tougher it sounds. Opening track ‘Nothing But Scenery’ starts with a droning synth bassline that doesn’t hit notes as much as morph into different shapes. It’s a thick, physical sound, steamrollering through the rest of the track as it absorbs the weight of disco percussion and white-hot metallic synths, leaving only Gonzalez’ glassy tones to float above it; it’s moody, heavy and sets the tone for the rest of the album. Where Nite Jewel’s production once felt airy and spacious, Liquid Cool feels full-bodied and lavish. There’s a greater sense of confidence in the murky textures, while the beats and rhythms lean and shake with the crisp funk of R&B grooves. Even when it gets reminiscent of peers like Jessy Lanza or Chromatics, Liquid Cool’s smothering heat makes Nite Jewel sound like nobody but herself.
That confidence is also apparent in the songwriting, but in a different way; Liquid Cool is impermeable on the surface, as Gonzalez eschews simple riffs and signposted melodies. The big choruses of prior material are absent, but it doesn’t feel like a fault – rather, it feels like a deliberate move, away from disposable retro pop towards a sense of gravitas. It mostly works: Liquid Cool is the kind of album that rewards familiarity, opening up its subtle charms to repeated listens until hooks unveil themselves, like the chorus repetition of lead single ‘Boo Hoo’, the regal horns of ‘Was That A Sign?’ or the plink-plonk melodic thread of ‘Over The Weekend.’ But its humid, gauzy ambience is a pleasure in itself, an enveloping mist of earthy tones and blurry reverb.
But there’s one anomaly. ‘Kiss The Screen’, a mix of power chords, sing-along vocals, and shimmering pads stands out vibrantly as not just the highlight of Liquid Cool but possibly Nite Jewel’s career. It’s a showcase for how strong Gonzalez’ songwriting can be when she wants it to be, and a frustrating teaser of the potential album this could have been had those pop leanings been fully explored. In the end, Liquid Cool sounds exactly like its title: fascinating surfaces, disguising a sense of detachment to the unironic pleasures of pop universality.