I happened upon Twin Shadow’s Confess after seeing the album art and thinking, “Who’s that Cameo/Prince-looking dude?”
No accident a couple of heyday 1980s pop stars came to mind. After playing the album all weekend, I read a few reviews and discovered that yeah, everybody thinks about the 80s when they hear these songs. I’m not a crazed 80s fan who watches VH-1 retrospectives while lamenting the demise of MTV, but I did grow up in that decade, and even the songs I didn’t love can conjure up serious nostalgia.
Remember when you saw the movie Drive last year and discovered that night-road, vintage synthesizer sweet-spot you didn’t know you had? Twin Shadow’s Confess might be just the album you need. This thing makes me want to grab my scorpion jacket and jump in the car PRONTO.
Twin Shadow is one man named George Lewis Jr. (that itself makes me think of Ray Parker Jr.), and I decided not to read about his background because I enjoy the mystique of an atmospheric album like Confess, and prefer to play it as I played so many cassettes and 45s a quarter-century ago: uninformed and impressionable.
A lot of the best hits from those early MTV years had common qualities — sonic effects and moods that affected me regardless of whether or not I actually liked the songs in question. I’m talking about eerie synths, electronic percussion, guitar echoes, and other sounds that elevated ordinary hooks and made the era so distinct.
Many of those songs had a peculiar high-low dynamic, too. The rise of videos created a multimedia, mass-appeal culture that encouraged serous artists to write bubblegum tunes and hit-makers to attempt Profound Aesthetics. Musicians tried everything, and for a while it was thrilling. You got pretentious disasters and watery stew and yet the alchemy worked, over and over, in producing songs — some of them truly great — that sounded absolutely new. A common structure of these songs is the brooding verse followed by the over-bright chorus. That’s common to songs of any era, but somehow the 80s over-seriousness shifting directly to top-of-the-lungs anthem singing resulted in a two-tone, art-pop power that’s remarkably distinct.
Twin Shadow does this a lot, establishing an early mood, often sinister or somber, and building to a singalong chorus that sounds bigger and brighter because of what preceded it. Along the way, he’s calling up all manner of 80s ghosts that are liable to drive you nuts, they’re so familiar, even while the music sounds immediate and fresh.
“Run My Heart” is a good example. It opens with a tap-beat and pensive guitar that feels like The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” A low-key verse, Stingish, brightens slightly when the guitar shifts hues and begins to recall The Cure’s “Lullaby”, and then he opens up — “This isn’t love! I’m just a boy, you’re just a girl!” — in a chorus that ought to be melodramatic but isn’t, at least not in a bad way, and might have emerged from a hundred 80s relationship songs you can’t quite put your finger on but know and feel compelled to identify because it just feels right and hits some button in your brain.
One minute his voice is like Peter Gabriel, and then it’s Cory Hart, Martin Gore, Morrissey, and a bunch of other singers without ever quite sounding like any of them exactly. Sit around with friends who know the 80s and you’re liable to recognize flourishes of Depeche, Prince, John Hughes movies, Simple Minds, “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks, on and on. The guitar in “Five Seconds” has the energetic drive of dance hits that borrowed a real rock guitarist — I’m thinking of Eddie Van Halen on “Beat It” — or a B-movie scene where the hero is about to win the big race against the preppie blonde dude, played by William Zabka.
I don’t want to reduce what the guy has accomplished here. It’s not a retro gimmick or lightly earned hodgepodge. There’s an ominous complexity throughout; the dark-romantic lyrics, mostly about messed relationships, sound emotionally honest; and he finds the right balance between specifics and generalities. The 80s trimmings work in service to an original sound, a daring blend that’s very much in the spirit of the songs that must have inspired him. Plus the dude has superstar charisma — a touch of unfakeable crazy and brio — and I suspect he’ll keep getting better over the next few albums.
Analysis aside, Confess’s greatest strength is that it sounds good. As soon as I heard “Five Seconds”, I downloaded the entire album without hesitation. That grab-before-you-preview-the-rest is often a disaster. I think of the countless bad cassettes I bought in adolescence on the strength of a radio single, but the times when I was right, when the single wasn’t just representative but topped by even better songs on the LP, made me a music addict. I still get a rush from that tantalizing first taste of an unknown artist, I’m still disappointed by most of the full LPs, and I still come across stuff like Confess that reinforces my addiction.
So “Five Seconds” is a good place to start. The video’s below. The song itself doesn’t begin for several minutes, but the dog on the motorcycle ought to tide you over during the spoken-word intro.