Context is a tricky thing. A single song can take on deeper meanings and associations with a bit of contextualization. Which is why I disagree with NPR’s Stephen Thompson, who wrote that the dream-pop duo Azure Ray “mine considerably gentler territory” on their new album As Above So Below, whereas previously they “weaponized [their] melancholy to devastating effect.” His assessment, though, is based solely on lead single “Red Balloon”, which he rightly describes as full of “unguarded optimism.” Rather than pessimistic or optimistic, based in reality or dream (or even nightmare), Azure Ray follows the wavy lines that separate the dichotomies.
Lead singer Maria Taylor does let her guard down on “Red Balloon”, with her vocal timbre full of sweetness and devoid of cynicism. But that’s why it’s so crushing when, on the album closer “We Could Wake”, Taylor sings about modern warfare and destruction. Her love has become a war, and her lover a merchant of death as she begs for release: “Are you a merciful soldier?/ Now you’ve looked me in the eye/ are you going to let me die?” Azure Ray are armed to the teeth with melancholy, and the effect is devastating.
As Above So Below tells a pretty basic love story, but soaks everything in dreams (though calling Azure Ray “dreamy” this far into their career is borderline cliché). Taylor’s whispered vocals swim in reverb, dripping with pathos, eventually joined by Orenda Fink’s equally effervescent harmonies. As if to further detach from reality, acoustic instruments that accompanied electronic backing tracks on earlier successes are dropped from the mix. Fink admits that she was influenced by artists like James Blake, and husband Todd Fink of The Faint helped the duo hone their sound.
Yet the dream goes deeper than the instrumentation, pervading every aspect of the lyrics, so that when Taylor sings, “we could wake, this all could be gone,” everything teeters on the edge of consciousness. On opener “Scattered Like Leaves”, Taylor introduces the dream world, singing of “pockets of dreams” before presenting a series of surreal, fleeting images. Rather than “unguarded optimism,” Azure Ray presents a yin and yang of emotion in close, hushed harmony: “there’s love everywhere/ there’s sadness everywhere.”
In “Red Balloon”, the dream is full of hope, even though Taylor makes herself into a “weeping willow tree.” But on “Unannounced”, the seams between the dream and reality start to tear. She “always knew you’d come in a dream,” but in reality, the lover is distant, so that our narrator must “look for you and listen for your voice in every crowded room.” The eventual tragedy, though, lingers in her uncertainty. Her complacency emerges on the penultimate track, “The Heart Has its Reasons”. Just as this affair seems to end with acceptance, though, war becomes an allegory for their love on “We Could Wake”. The dream begs to be revealed as an illusion. There are the darker and lighter sides of both worlds, and to say that either is moved to the fore would be a stretch.
Azure Ray successfully matches this delicate narrative with music that perpetuates that dream state, awash in beautiful electronic haze. “Scattered Like Leaves” introduces the dream with eruptions of bass and pulsating sounds. “Red Balloon” takes Taylor’s doe-eyed optimism and matches it with cheery, bright washes of synthesizer, with a coquettish tinge to her voice. As the certainty of where each side of the equation ends, the music blurs — pitches bend on “Unannounced” like the beginnings of a nightmare, while “To This Life” uses a frenetic bass riff under a static minor chord progression.
The high point comes as the album closes, the border between realities wavering. “The Heart Has its Reasons”, the most sparse song on the album, begins with plangent piano chords, one of the few recognizable acoustic sounds on the record. As bass and more backing instruments enter, it’s as though the sadness is creeping in, layer by layer. But it’s on the brilliant “We Could Wake” that Azure Ray turns in the album’s best performance. A slow R&B beat backs a heavy, dire keyboard ostinato, repeating throughout the entire song. Taylor and Fink match the music with a marked intensity in their voices, the looming conclusion forcing themes to a head.
On its own, a song like “Red Balloon” might seem to be a departure for Azure Ray, less dour and more hopeful. But in the context of As Above So Below, it’s just a step along the path from dream to nightmare.
Essential Tracks: “The Heart Has Its Reasons”, “We Could Wake”