Claire Rousay

(Thrill Jockey)


Since Claire Rousay distanced herself from her Christian upbringing, where she played drums in an evangelical rock band, she’s evaded easy categorisation in the music she’s produced, and in how that music has been presented. I can’t tell you what number album sentiment is, because I can’t confidently gauge which of Rousay’s releases she considers to be albums. 2022’s everything perfect is already here did appear in our Album of the Year list, but it is a record made up of just 2 tracks. Its runtime isn’t far off her 2021 release sometimes i feel like i have no friends, and that’s just one piece of music. Rousay’s Bandcamp page is full of compositions ranging from 2 minutes to 28 minutes in length, often grouped in pairs but sometimes alone and occasionally in larger clusters, giving the distinct impression that Rousay’s tracks choose their own lifespans and will not be cut down prematurely or dragged out for compliance, especially not for outdated convention in a limitless digital world. Of course, it helps that her work is so allergic to mainstream appeal, and that the musique concrète she’s been exploring over the last four years is a genre that, at its very core, expands and retracts with the found sounds and field recordings its made from. That said, sentiment does go against its creator’s unusual grain, and not just for the very boring reason that it’s 10 tracks long.

When I saw Rousay preview much of this album at Flow festival in Helsinki last year, she nervously apologised halfway through her set, saying: “It’s weird singing songs instead of the weird cool experimental stuff, so sorry if that’s what you’ve come for.” Suddenly, it seemed, Rousay’s style was a bag in the wind, just as her uncompromising sound collages had been, typically void of rhythm and consisting of echoey room ambience, voice notes that either overshared or revelled in banality, violin and harp, and other indecipherable sounds from our most uneventful days.

Now that sentiment is here, Rousay has said that it’s her pop record, noting: “I have been on a quest to communicate my feelings and ideas as clearly as possible lately. Pop seemed like the way to do that this time.” Opening track ‘4pm’ certainly fits the brief of clarity, beginning, unaccompanied: “It’s 4pm on a Monday and I cannot stop sobbing / I haven’t been able to eat or sleep or leave the bed for days / Crying every single day for the past 20 days / Now that I type it out, that seems like an obvious red flag… something is wrong.” When this monologue is later joint by another sound, it’s a drone that then makes way for a stammering, screeching printer or a piece of hospital equipment. “Sometimes I am just grateful that I can still cry,” says the voice before a melee of manic clicking begins, “Because being numb is an even worse reality, and very few people seem to return from that.” You’ve got to wonder if Dua Lipa’s new album will open in a similar vein.

Rousay’s take on pop really begins from the following ‘head’, which lays out sentiment’s reduced but effective bag of tools: a slowly picked electric guitar that occasionally rings out a full chord, a basic, sleepy drumbeat played on a proper kit, and Rousay singing through a vocoder. A mix of ambient, slowcore and emo, it’s certainly the most conventional (that is “song-based”) we’ve heard the American-Canadian. Pop, even; where pop sounds like Death Cab slowing down their slow songs and making them squarely about sex (“Spending half of my whole life giving you head just in case you need to forgive me one day for something that I did,” goes ‘head’; “Do you ever think about what I’m doin when he’s doing you?” she asks as the guitar on ‘it could be anything’ is played so slowly it make you want to cry).

The midway point of ‘iii’ has Rousay relapsing into straight-up ambient mode, combining a bright drone with cello and violin to beautiful, positive effect. ‘sycamore skylight’ could have been hiding on Rousay’s Bandcamp before now too, featuring so many everyday street sounds that you can’t help but lean in to identify them, aware that you’ve been seduced by sounds you hear everyday and happily ignore. We need these moments of ‘vintage Claire Rousay’ to offset the heaviness of her new emo ambient sound. Rousay’s directness is working, after all, whether you want to pore over the lyric while you listen to her robo confessionals or simply approach Rousay’s work as people have done since before she started singing – by letting the feel of the music, quite mysteriously, punch you in the stomach. In fact, the latter is how you’ll get the most out of sentiment, which speaks to the magic of Rousay. You don’t need to know exactly what she’s saying to know that it means everything.