“Just a speck of dust in the Milky Way. We’ll fade away, we’ll slip away”. Haunting almost-nihilistic lyrics that seem to philosophically grapple with human significance and importance. Significance is one of themes that runs through the beautiful, celestial, thought-provoking and album-of-the-year-contending second album from South African musician Alice Phoebe Lou.
Like the title somewhat suggests, Paper Castles contains an abundance of imagination, D-I-Y production (Alice Phoebe Lou self-released the record) within its blues, folk and jazz combinations but it also epitomises an equilibrium of vulnerability and battling spirit. This equilibrium is first found in the South African’s mesmeric voice. You really won’t hear a more charming vocalist this year. The voice can be fragile like Joanna Newsom, silky smooth like Kadhja Bonet, often shivers like Sevdaliza. but at any given moment it can wail with passionate relief.
The fascinating single ‘Galaxies’ is a good example of this vocal style and the concept of significance. Alice ponders humanity’s lack of meaning among all the endless wonders of the solar system with hopeless acceptance, as she sings “We’ll fade away, we’ll slip away”. The soundscape starts off as soothing and woozy chillout with soft jazz drums. Then suddenly out-of-the-blue it turns into a Hiatus Kaiyote-reminiscent swirling future-soul track with Alice yelling with renewed defiance: “I’m not going!” Before ending with an optimistic message: “But we are alive. We’ll be ok.”
The electro-jazz-jamming ‘New Song’ and echoey opener ‘Little Spark’ are also philosophical about life. The latter also exists in the same celestial atmosphere as ‘Galaxies’. The otherworldly atmosphere is created by pairing a theremin sound with nocturnal blues, while the lyrics picture a situation where Alice Phoebe Lou is playing God and the universe is her living room. “Turn on the stars, the street lamps of Mars.”
But she sounds like a lonely god yearning for romance: “You lay there on the rooftop. No one there, nobody to love you. My little spark observing its big spark.” The 1960’s slow prom dance (much of her music sounds situated in that slow-paced scenario) ‘New Song’ is less evocative and tries to encourage people to live life to the fullest. Alice wants to feel alive but not just physically with a pulse but emotionally too: “Cause my heart’s still beating. And there’s nothing, it’s fleeting. Cause night has no meaning.”
It’s hopeless romantic notion is portrayed even better on the tropical and sugary ‘Something Holy’. The summery Neo-soul vibes make it sound like a lost Corinne Bailey Rae torch song before it descends into shape-shifting psychedelia, as Alice Phoebe Lou talks about the importance of feeling special and 100% significant in somebody else’s life. Her signature shivers and wails feel encompass drops of anxiety and sudden euphoria.
‘Fynbos’, ‘Skin Crawl’ and ‘My Outside’ are about the significance of memory and the past and how they can shape your present state. The exotic ‘Fynbos’ is the more positive and fantastical one, despite it’s melancholic piano sound. It’s a flashback to Alice Phoebe Lou’s time in Fynbos, a natural shrubland in Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa. She has a very detailed memory of this time in her life, where she can “still smell the fynbos after a night’s rain”, remembers curling “up on my mother with the fire ablaze” and recalls falling from a tree. However, she also embellishes it with fictional elements such as fairies and mystical feelings, which could exemplify how sometimes we can add in lies to make a memory seem sweeter.
‘Skin Crawl’ and ‘My Outside’ are perhaps surprising lyric-wise for a Alice Phoebe Lou song because they are straight-to-the point instead of being in wrapped in imaginative layers. They had to be this way. This is Alice speaking to the sexist bastards of her past – in an interview she mentioned about her sexually traumatic moments as a teenager and her drink spiking experience in New York as being examples – with brutal sarcasm and enraged disapproval. She sings on the latter of the two: “Maybe I wouldn’t cease to exist. Without a man to do the hard things”. This is Alice blooming from her vulnerable persona (the “paper” of the album title) to a battling spirit (the “castle” of the title if you will).
The last lines of the sexism-targeting track: “I’m going to put it in the backyard and set fire to it” indicate that Alice Phoebe Lou won’t let the significant experiences she details on the incredible album Paper Castles drag her down but instead use them to keep driving her forward.
The self released Paper Castles is out now.