I was knocked out by Kye Alfred Hillig‘s ability to convey emotions on last year’s eclectic Together Through It All: through pop-rock, indie-pop, singer/songwriter, and even electro-indie, Hillig showed he knew how to bowl the listener over. Hillig is back with Real Snow, and it’s an even better offering: his emotional power is fine-tuned even further, and he’s chosen a specific sound to investigate. Hillig has gone full electro-pop on Real Snow, and the focus makes it into an excellent album.
Opener “Cold Front” establishes the rules of the game. Good: synths, beats, live percussion, bass, cascading electric guitar riffs, soaring vocal melodies. Less Good: acoustic guitar, piano, ballads. Bad: things you can’t dance to. If you know Hillig’s previous work, “Cold Front” will be a little bit of a shock, but his signature emotive power, vocal tone, and engaging melodies are there. It’s just in a different genre this time. By the time you get to “None of Them Know Me Now,” you won’t even remember that Hillig’s last album was predominantly Americana. He sounds like he belongs in this genre, not as a toy or a lark, but as a genuine pop hitmaker.
I know that sounds weird from an artsy indie songwriter, but don’t worry–the word “slaughterhouse” appears in the chorus, and the narrator of the tune sounds positively solipsistic. Hillig is flexing other muscles, you might say–and when those muscles introduce the triumphant guitar solo in the breakdown section, you’ll be dancing right along without concern. It is truly wonderful. “None of Them Know Me Know” is basically what we wanted MGMT to mature into.
It’s not all neo-club-bangers in here: “Useless Keys,” “Like God” and “Bells of Doom” explore different elements of electro-pop. “Bells of Doom” pairs an insistent acoustic guitar strum with a twitchy, urgent low-key electro section reminiscent of The Postal Service. “Like God” ups the nervousness ante and moves straight into outright dread (complete with terrifying spoken-word section from a guest poet closing the piece). “Useless Keys” relies heavily on real electric bass guitar for its plodding yet bouncy vibe.
Hillig can’t get through a whole album without busting out a few ballads, and so “When You Were a Waitres” and “The Night Obscene” appear. “When You Were a Waitress” is a wrenching piano ballad depicting the remorse at the end of a one-night-stand/relationship that probably shouldn’t have happened, while “The Night Obscene” seems to depict quiet despair in an otherwise normal life via Americana-style acoustic guitar-heavy arrangement. Hillig delves this lyrical mine deeply in Real Snow; everyone seems sad about something. Even the funkiest track “Ugly We Were Born” opens up with, “Heavenly gates, Oh! Don’t you want me?/Don’t you think I’d make a great slave?” Whoa there.
So maybe the grating despair of some tracks makes interesting juxtaposition to the dance-oriented music; maybe the perky arrangements hide the heaviness somewhat. It probably depends on the listener. I know that I’m all about the sounds here; it’s some of the most interesting and enjoyable electro-pop I’ve heard all year. If you need to get down and you want something a little more cerebral than “Selfie,” Real Snow should be your jam.