Francis and the Lights Returns with the Brilliant ‘Just For Us’

Virtually every review you read of Francis and the Lights compares project head Francis Farewell Starlite’s vocals (and often even his music) to Peter Gabriel. So let me get this out there: His pipes definitely have the texture, character, and delivery of Gabriel. Earlier records even had songs with vibes from Gabriel’s commercial peak in the 1980s. The lyrics even easily delve into the beefier portions of the human condition in a Gabrielian way.

On his second full-length album, Just for Us, which Starlite dropped by surprising on Dec. 29, the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist still recalls a modernization of Gabriel’s ’80s machinations. However, he takes Francis and the Lights’ futuristic synth-pop and R&B inclinations to levels of Prince’s minimalist-but-ambitious, synth-focused expressions and pairs them with his own penchant for writing sticky hooks that don’t readily or easily want to leave.

The result is something that is perhaps less weird and autre than anything Gabriel or Prince put out, but nevertheless we’re left with an idea of what it might have sounded like had Prince produced 1986’s So. (Or, at least, what would have happened if Starlite and friends filled in the blanks from unfinished tapes from such a session.)

Lyrically, there’s this idea of a reckoning with the way time works (or, at least, the most practical way we humans perceive time). In this case, it has to do with a relationship between two people who are inconceivably close to each other but concurrently seeing that closeness losing its potency at a rapid clip.

The title cut invokes the spirt of Starlite’s break-out single, “Friends,” a collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Kanye West, from debut LP Farewell, Starlite! Vernon is back to help with the chorus and his vocals pair ever so well with Starlite’s work.

Chunky, fat-bottom synths and Minneapolis-Sound slide synth runs drive the mid-tempo cut, over which Starlite and Vernon implore someone, a love interest, probably, to eschew the bad advice of interlopers: keep it close and just for us. Every note will stay with you, but especially Vernon’s “juuuust/for ussss” refrain. Overall, the production work by Vernon, Cashmere Cat, and Benny Blanco is unassailably good. Vernon and Starlite really need to release a full-length collaboration.

Another standout is “Tear It Up,” a minimalist groover about resiliency in the face of interpersonal drama. The synth-sparse, drum machine-led composition gives hints on what I mentioned earlier: what So would have sounded like had Prince produced it. If you’re having trouble getting out of the house to go hang with friends, this is a great pre-game theme for you.

Starlite’s talent for strong, piano-driven songs can’t be overlooked. On “Faithful,” back by big chords (with audible hammers) and very subtle synth pads, our hero sings about the rare ways he could be faithful to his love interest, the subject of the tune. It sounds to me a bit like he’s taking the idea of atheism and applying it the idea of fidelity in the relationship sense. Musically, this cut has similarities to the sacred-like compositions of James Blake’s piano-centric work — count this cut in those categories of God-questioning songs that nevertheless recall gospel music.

“Never Back” pairs a tempered rhythm section and synths that sound like they were recorded underwater with lyrics that reference a resounding sense of defeat. Specifically, Starlite opens the song with a declaration that “there is no God/there are no rules/but I wish there was something I could do.” And then he declares assertively that there is no way to go back in time and there is no way to see the future. Whatever the hell happened has happened and there’s nothing anyone can do about it — not you, not me, not a nonexistent deity. But he wishes there was a way. (“Back in Time” also deals with this, although its focus is obviously more about the past being done and gone.)

Overall, ‘Just for Us’ is the perfect pop album as an antidote to our times.

Curious lines recall the album’s cover and speak to the music’s underwater mix: “I see a vision of us two/You’re taking pictures and I’m in the pool.” Given the context of the rest of the song’s lyrics — and really, the entire album — the lines could mean a couple different things. One, it’s about how Starlite was participating in things and having fun, while the love interest is busy capturing the moments as an uninvolved wallflower. That constant dichotomy tore them apart and there’s no way to change it. Another is that Starlite is drowning in a sour relationship and knows it’s nearing its end, while the other party is presenting the picture of a perfect relationship to the outside world. Either way, there’s no turning back from the mess.

Overall, Just for Us is the perfect pop album as an antidote to our times: it’s a reflection on the ways we hurt each other, which is a concept for which we can cast a wide net. We’ve spent much of 2017, and will likely spend much of 2018 and beyond, reassessing what went wrong with the world (and not just our interpersonal affairs). We’re tired of the bombast and the insincerity (and insecurity) and need those moments of sacred-like contemplation to work out the answers — if there even are any. Francis and the Lights offers those moments over a tight, 10-cut album that, unlike some of our current predicaments, we wish would go on for much longer.

The record is available via Spotify and Apple, and probably other streaming services, too. I can’t quite make out if there’s anything physical available yet.