REVIEW: Young Magic - Still Life

Laura Kerry

If all the world’s religious myths could condense into a single symbol, that symbol might be a circle. Circles crop up everywhere—in Hindu reincarnation, in the oneness of the Muslim god, in Catholic eternity—conveying otherworldly perfection, balance, and the eternal movement of beginning at the end.

Young Magic’s latest album, Still Life, is itself a circle, starting and ending with versions of the song “Valhalla.” And it is a fitting shape. The band has always leaned on myths of creation, their own featuring the meeting of Indonesian-born Melati Malay and Australian Isaac Emmanuel in Brooklyn in 2009, and two albums whose recording locations read like an Olympic roster. Still Life’s story is even more potent: After losing her father last year, Malay traveled back to Indonesia to reconnect with her heritage and her family. She began working on the album on a rented shack on the beach in Java, sifting through a history that had come full circle.

On Still Life, that kind of reckoning with the past manifests in a haunting record. Young Magic continues on an experimental track that skirts the line between songwriting and electronic production, creating songs that rely on synth textures as much as structure, melodies, and the other fixings of pop music. Driven by the layering of delicate percussion, jittery synth voices, and soft, reverb-soaked vocals, the music is otherworldly and ethereal. The album begins in a whisper on “Valhalla” (“Calling out to you in all directions”) and doesn’t rise too far above it that often.

Despite the airiness, Young Magic also invests their sound with enough to hold on to. Throughout Still Life, the music is buoyed by acoustic voices: strings from cellist Kelsey Lu McJunkins, percussion from Daniel Alejandro Siles Mendoza, and recordings of Javanese gamelan from Malay’s Indonesia trip. Washing in and out of the album, the strings fill the music with an emotional core; the sometimes brittle and sometimes heavy percussion grounds it; and the last sound, often emerging in the delicate trickle of mallets that bleed into synth effects, infuses the music with warmth.

More than the trinity of acoustic sounds, though, it’s the moments when Malay’s voice rises that resonate. On “Lucien,” the refrain, which resembles Bat for Lashes resembling Björk, is direct and aching: “Lucien, oh Lucien / So full of light / Why on this day, oh this day / You pull the knife?” On “IWY,” she sings “I wanted you” desperately over strings, and on “How Wonderful,” the quick incantation at the end gives the war-cry beat its warrior. In combination with lush and inventive production, these and other straightforward moments make this Young Magic’s most personal and penetrating album yet. Beneath the unearthly sounds, Still Life and its backstory are reminders that every divine myth is a way to explain a human experience of the world.