Via Carpark Records
It’s very difficult to talk about The Artist Formerly Known As Saint Pepsi’s debut on Carpark Records (Speedy Ortiz, Toro y Moi, Beach House) without considering the fact that this album is the sonically the most dramatic shift in his career thus far. People who have been following Ryan DeRobertis for the last couple years have known him for mostly instrumental, sample-laden, irresistibly groovy music sitting around on bandcamp. In a sense, some of that hasn’t changed. Rather than a complete reworking of the way his music sounded previously, this album sounds like the logical next step for DeRobertis as an artist.
The building blocks of what made his earlier work great are still present; there’s the dominant presence of heavy, driving dance beats and samples of horns, strings and chopped up vocal elements (among other things) that lend themselves to the charisma and warmth that characterizes DeRobertis’s music. To this, Prom King adds slicker production; with beautifully clean, funky guitar parts reminiscent of John Frusciante or Nile Rodgers, and perhaps more significantly, DeRobertis’s own voice taking center stage. His singing voice and lyrics are as confident and sweet as someone who would name their album Prom King, though there is one notable sneak diss to what his music used to sound like on track two, “Can’t Stop” where he says “I was working, tried my hardest/slowed some music down and called myself an artist”, referring to his previous work, which would neatly fit in the category of vaporwave, a genre that heavily relies on slowed-down samples.
Regardless of whether you agree with his sentiment, that line is important; the first proper track besides the intro is DeRobertis telling us that what’s to come is different. This album is a celebration of a kind of musical metamorphosis for him and he has the confidence to back it up. It’s certainly evident on the fourth track, “I Can’t Be Your Superman” which opens with a chunky guitar riff (perhaps the chunkiest on this LP) and progresses to heavy funk bass, pumping drums and what sounds like a baritone saxophone pulsating in the background. All of this drops out to the vocals as well as some sparse drums and a classically 80’s sounding synth before blasting everything back at full force for the chorus. “Fall Harder”, sitting in the middle of the album, takes a different approach, being very melodically inclined with the guitar and vocals while subduing the drums and bass.
While lyrical and guitar-heavy tracks featuring stylistically different turns for DeRobertis take center stage in defining what Prom King is about, several tracks help to define the sound as a lot more nuanced. There’s a general trend of alternating vocal and instrumental based songs going on, and the instrumentals in arrangement are more nostalgic to his earlier work. ”Ridiculous”, “Prom King”, and “Bounce is Back” are all upbeat, funky, and sound slicker than his previous instrumental albums, though this isn’t necessarily a good thing. For me, and indeed many others, a large part of what made DeRobertis’ music so alluring was his choice of samples, and how he deployed them in a way that sounded so defiantly dated. By contrast, in Prom King these same elements seem to have been modernized to fit better with the rest of the album. However, I do really enjoy the delicate solo guitar playing at the beginning of “Bounce is Back”.
By contrast, “Cash Wednesday,” the second to last song on the album, features a generally more lo-fi production and a vocal sample chopped a la J Dilla. It’s interesting that this was placed right before “Fiona Coyne,” which was the first song released from this album, long enough ago that it was still under the Saint Pepsi moniker. We get a better sense of DeRobertis’s intentions with tracks like this one, which show that he’s not ashamed of what he’s good at; rather, he wants to change his arrangements and style to match the vision and aesthetic we know him for.
The album takes a different, more subdued turn at “Affairs”. The sounds of the 80s suffuse through the track, more specifically recalling the synth pop movement. The reverb slathered guitar and drums, combined with delicate synths and booming drum fills complement the harmonized vocal lines, which describe a relationship that couldn’t last: “We tried to get ourselves together/We built a fire, but we just couldn’t handle the flames”.
’Affairs’ is a great track, but the style of production deployed here is notably different from that featured throughout the rest of Prom King; it’s so different that it feels a bit awkward. It does, however, serve well as a transition into the next track, “All I Want,” which is the slow jam you’ve all been waiting for. A tender and sparsely arranged introduction to the song, featuring a glockenspiel, strings, and a small amount of guitar, has a very light and childlike feeling to it before the bass and drums lurch in with a fittingly huge amount of presence. The whole thing is punctuated by sampling of a particular soul singer that is played at the start of the track, giving it a kind of sentimental quality. The bridge has some fairly atypical chord movement, and as a result adds a lot to the song.
“Fiona Coyne,” the album’s closer, is an unbashful statement about loving someone and appreciating how much they mean to his life. It features an instantly catchy guitar riff and DeRobertis’s vocals which, in the chorus, are chopped up and processed in the most tasteful of ways. It’s a fittingly confident end to the statement that Prom King tries to convey. While not perfect, the album flows well when listened to in one sitting. Almost every song features something musically interesting to pay attention to while also being irresistibly catchy. If Skylar Spence is the Prom King that the title refers to, it doesn’t surprise me. In a way, it’s his senior year of high school; he is fully aware of what he’s accomplished, what he wants to do differently, and what his plans for the future are. This album is an incredibly important transition for him; you could say that Prom King is the last concert of his senior year. And, as the introduction cheekily states, “Now it’s show time.”
Skylar Spence will be bringing the prom to Bloomington in Nov. 3 at the Bishop, click here for more information.
Songs to check out:
“Can’t You See”
“I Can’t Be Your Superman”