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Darlingside captures the digital zeitgeist

Marshall McLuhan is known for saying “The medium is the message,” but one of his lesser-known statements is that the content of any new medium is a remediation of the old medium. He was working at the time when television was emerging as a new medium, and so he argued that the content of television was largely content from radio (which, if you look at the early days of television, was true). We’re now firmly ensconced in the popular maturation of the digital medium, and so it would follow that the content of the digital medium is a remediation of the television that came before it. (Hello, YouTube.)

However, as a medium develops, creators become more familiar with and comfortable with the things that a medium can do. These creators then start to make things unique to the medium. (These “unique to the medium” things become the stuff remediated when the next media comes around.)

Darlingside‘s Extralife is a remediation of the folk tradition in a digital milieu, with the content of “digital music” being a reframing and reshaping of the old content (folk music). Darlingside isn’t the first to combine folk and electronics (folktronica is a whole genre unto itself). However, society has advanced through time, and digital-influenced folk has matured to a point where Darlingside’s work feels less like a quirky outlier or early-adopter noodling and more like an accurate descriptor of the present moment. Add in lyrics that span the distance from pastoral reminiscent to fears about the end of time, and you’ve got something that nails the ethos of our era just about as well as OK Computer nailed its time.

The first thing to note here is not the digital work, but the thick, multi-tracked vocals that evoke Fleet Foxes, The Oh Hellos, or the Collection in approach. These feel spot-on; they lend a we’re-all-in-this-together vibe to the tracks. The vocal melodies are solid throughout, from the wide-eyed “Extralife” to the soaring “Singularity” to the Paul Simon-esque verses of “Futures.” You can sing along to this record, just like you can with any good folk record.

The arrangements surrounding those vocals explore a specific range of territory: these tracks are often minor-key, but not grim; filled with lush atmospheres, but not necessarily “warm” in the way of The Low Anthem. Instead, there’s a density to the arrangement of each of the tracks that gives them gravitas without robbing them of human connection. “Hold Your Head Up High” displays this tension perfectly; there’s some Bon Iver-level arch iciness filled in/contrasted with mournful trumpet and accordion. There’s a bit of an autotune edge on the vocals, again evoking Bon Iver–but the lyrics are optimistic and the vocal melodies tend to follow (in a way).

This tension between minor and major, between optimistic and sad, is extended in the digital aspects of the record. Opener “Extralife” opens with what sounds like sharpened, manipulated violins, then gives way to a patient arpeggiator as the basis of the track. What sounds like accordion (maybe it’s a synth?) comes in over it, smoothing out the rhythms of the arpeggiator. An acoustic guitar eases its way in on top, with the lyrics weaving video game concepts and metaphors through all that. The digital is part of everything, not a gimmick or a cheat code, but a part of how they write.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in standout “Eschaton,” which also starts out with a perky arpeggiator and delightfully droning counterpoint. But from that beginning, the song expands into a punchy, full-throated indie-rock track, complete with Paul Simon-esque lyrics like “They’re making martyrs out of tennis stars / did you think they were ours?” The digital (the arpeggiator goes slightly bonkers), the acoustic (that cello line is wonderful), and the vocal all blend together beautifully.

It’s not all the digital future: “Old Friend” includes flutes in a pastoral setting, “Lindisfarne” is as close as they get to a Fleet Foxes song, and “The Rabbit and the Pointed Gun” feels like a latter-day Iron and Wine idea. But these are all placed in the context of album that opens with “Extralife” and closes with the enthusiastic “Best of the Best Times,” which sounds like a cross between ELO (those futurists) and a folk vocal performance with failing machine sounds thrown in. It is a major key song about sadness, which sets it apart from the record in some regards; however, the sonic threads that Darlingside cultivates through the rest of the record all come to bear here, creating a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the record.

This is a big record that aims high–they shoot for a lot, and they hit most of it. Those big ambitions pay off. This is a folk record that looks backwards and forwards, creating an excellent record that sounds very contemporary. Yet it’s contemporary in the way that can stand–it’s more a stake in the ground than a trend-following ephemeral piece. This is fantastic work. Highly recommended.