Auckland’s finest delivers an electropop journey into space…
If there’s one particular star on the electronic music scene that’s been on the ascendant in recent years, it’s New Zealand’s Princess Chelsea. Scoring a cult hit with the indie charms of ‘The Cigarette Duet’, her 2011 album Lil’ Golden Book also demonstrated a fine talent for wistful electronica and tales of growing up in Auckland.
It’s taken a while for second album The Great Cybernetic Depression to arrive, but the wait has been more than worth it. As an album, it’s a very compact selection of songs which, more so than Lil’ Golden Book, take on a very raw and personal edge. There’s also a concept album approach which La Chelsea herself describes thus: “it represents a personal and societal depression due to social change triggered by technology.” So not your father’s electropop then.
Album opener ‘When The World Turns Grey’ delivers a melancholic reverie on life, love and relationships with its sombre piano tones. Meanwhile, ‘It’s All OK’ with its engaging melodies does some sleight of hand with its counterpoint topics of depression and anxiety. The vocal duties are shared by Joe Astle who (along with Jonathan Bree elsewhere on the album) adds a bassy delivery that’s a fine counterpoint for Chelsea’s airy vocals.
‘No Church On Sunday’, which was one of the earliest tracks up for consideration on the album (and was originally penned by Chelsea’s musician chum Jamie-Lee), holds forth on religion and loss of faith. There’s a fittingly hymnal quality to the song which is augmented by spacey percussion, guitars and choral effects.
Chelsea’s musical influences are quite broad and include classical composers such as Bach and Grieg up to the likes of Philip Glass and Kraftwerk. In crafting the latest album Chelsea has also had half an eye on retro synth sounds, yet manages to avoid the pitfalls of lesser talents by not being simply a xerox of the 80s synthpop establishment.
So the album steps forth with a musical palette that can dabble in the retro pastel colours of the 1980s, such as the warm melodies of ‘We Were Meant 2 B’ in all its ballad-esque glory, but can still sound contemporary. For many artists it’s a tough line to follow without ending up sounding like a pastiche, but that’s often why it’s so difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff in electronic music these days.
At the same time, Princess Chelsea retains a sense of humour and wit, expressed through some of her more pointed lyrical content. Songs like ‘Too Many People’ with its jaunty space synths is aimed directly at the world of social networking and the attention-seeking antics of the people that inhabit it. It’s a topic she previously visited on Lil’ Golden Book’s ‘Ice Reign’ (and Lola Dutronic have also dabbled in similar waters).
The widescreen pop appeal of ‘We Are Strangers’ presents one of the album’s strongest tunes. Its sepulchral wall of synth sound provides the foundations for a lyrical foray into the world of relationships. If Jonathan Bree’s heartfelt delivery of lines like “I would kill technology/Just to know you well” don’t raise the hairs on your neck, then nothing will.
Meanwhile, the self-reflection in tunes like ‘We Are Very Happy’ will strike a chord with anyone who’s been in love with the wrong person. The plucked string synths of the song again present an unsettling contrast to the content of the vocals.
‘We’re So Lost’ (which marked Princess Chelsea’s first single release in the post-Lil’ Golden Book period) has a glacial opening refrain backed with evocative electronic arpeggios. It’s again a perfect combo of reflective electropop and melancholic lyrics which appears to float in space itself (the sleeve design with Chelsea herself appearing to float in space seems entirely appropriate for the material within).
The wistful ‘All The Stars’ provides a perfect album closer with its icy melodies and use of space to reflect the themes of distance and loss. It builds into a jarring burst collage of musique concrète and sampled elements before finally twinkling away like the distant stars. There’s not much light there, but there’s enough to see by.
It’s been a busy few months for electronic music releases, but Princess Chelsea has delivered what is easily one of the best albums of the year. Despite this, it would have been easy to miss out on her particular charms if she had been judged (and judged she was by those with cloth ears) solely on the success of ‘The Cigarette Duet’.
The Great Cybernetic Depression delivers a solid collection of electronic tunes that trades on themes of lost love and regret (think of a more intimate take on Susanne Sundfør’s amazing Ten Love Songs album) and your life will be all the better for having it on your shelf.