Cindertalk‘s All a Shimmer is an ostensibly-indie-pop album that transcends boundaries and genre labels, creating a mind-bending world of tensions: complex/spartan arrangements; huge/tiny lyrical concerns; vulnerable/brash emotive turns; dark/light moods; gentle/forceful instrumentation; subtle/powerful vocals. Jonny Rodgers’ work with tuned glass shows through consistently, but never dominates; instead, all the pieces come together into whirling, enigmatic, satisfyingly unusual pieces.
Rodgers has been working with tuned glass for a long time now, and the glass has transcended use as a side or even feature instrument. It is now an integral part of his work, an instrument that has expanded his sense of what is possible in a song. Rodgers can use the glass as a beautiful pad synth (“Ruminating,” “All A Shimmer”), a feathery mini orchestra (“You Will Suffer”), a guitar solo (“One of Their Own”), a lead riff [“Swing (Your Low Song)”], a marimba-esque percussion element (“Mutter Mutter Mutter”) and as a foil to Imogen Heap-style autotune (“Twitter Queen”).
It’s not just that the instrument is used in so many different ways; it has so thoroughly suffused Rodgers’ songwriting that the sounds and rhythms of other instruments are intertwined and influenced by the glass. The percussion here is muted throughout, hitting with punch but not snap; whether subtle electronic beats (“The Frozen Field”), distant kit drum (“Twitter Queen,” “Hurrah Hurrah,” “One of Their Own”), or something in-between (“Mutter Mutter Mutter”), the percussion here fits perfectly in against the glass and the rest of the indie-pop arrangements. The guitars, piano, and bass (often through bass keys) have similarly unique personality as a result of their interaction with the glass. The guitar is sometimes precise and patterned like glass-tapping, while the piano often lush yet precise in its stops and starts. This is a musical album like none you’ve ever heard before.
However, it’s not just the instrumental prowess that makes this an irresistible album. The vocal tone and vocal melodies are beautiful and catchy. (Those two adjectives don’t always go together.) From the forceful indie-rock attitude of “Mutter Mutter Mutter” to the yearning beauty of “Love, I Will Remember Your Hands” to the swooping “Swing (Your Low Song),” many of these songs have distinct, precise, memorable melodies that don’t blend into each other. There’s a theme throughout (these aren’t unrelated pieces), but I find myself humming many different melodies from this album, not just one or two. This is partially due to Rodgers’ unusually wide vocal range: his voice can reach to dramatic, perfectly-sustained high notes that make the vocals seem almost as crystalline as the glass. You’ll hear his voice once and remember it.
The lyrics that Rodgers pairs with the music are equally as impressive as the music, which is no small feat. Not a single song here traffics in cliches except “Twitter Queen,” which does so to subvert them in uncomfortable, social-commentary-laden ways. Elsewhere, he writes a love song to his lover’s hands, discusses why death may not be the worst possible thing that can happen to you (solo piano elegy “I’m Only Dying”), thinks through mental and emotional suffering (“Ruminating,” “You Will Suffer,”), ponders the problem of evil (“All A Shimmer”), and more. (I’m still not entirely done pondering what the lyrics of “Hurrah Hurrah” mean when paired with the minor/major tension of the instrumental accompaniment, but it is the type of song that will make you think about it.)
The whole album is a powerhouse, but there’s a suite of three songs in the middle that really took my breath away. “Ruminating” is the closest to an indie-pop song that Cindertalk gets on this record, as the glass, acoustic guitar, percussion, and harmonica come together to form a song that flips back and forth from airy openness to concrete, almost-country-esque sections. The melodies and lyrics are straightforward (at least as compared to the rest of the album), but they’re still unique and lovely. This fun tune leads into my favorite song of the record, “You Will Suffer.” The opening lyrics tell you everything you need to know about the content of the song and the complex rhythmic patterns that flow through it: “You / You will suffer / some things alone / but it / it / will show you / who you are / who you are.” The bass guitar doesn’t have too many important roles on this record (and this one may still be a guitar modulated down a couple octaves), but the bass here does some great work, along with the keys and the glass. It’s a whirling, complex song–a great microcosm of the record.
The final of the three tunes in the suite is one of the most complex-sounding on the record (although “Mutter Mutter Mutter” objectively has more going on), due to the almost-mathy patterning of the guitar and percussion rhythms. Rodgers’ vocals shine here, as he uses vocal percussion, soaring wordless arias, and lead vocals here. The song rolls, starts, stops, starts again, adds in instruments, drops out instruments, and generally never lets you walk in a straight line for four and a half minutes. It’s expertly crafted, and, again, a microcosm of the record.
I could keep going, but this is already one of my longest reviews of the year. All A Shimmer is a beautiful album that enthusiastically and successfully pushes the boundaries of what pop music can do. Rodgers shows off an incredibly unique songwriting voice, a deft arranging hand, and expert engineering skills. It was an easy choice to include in my albums of the year. If you’re into adventurous music, there was no more an adventurous album this year than this one. Highly recommended.