If you stay in New York long enough, the people you know will move to Los Angeles. Or maybe you didn’t know them, but you spent a lot of time listening to their music and feeling proud of living in the same city or borough as this musician or band who brought so much meaning to your life. But then they moved to LA. Should you move to LA? What a question.
The move to LA can incite quite the sea change in a musician’s work, which is what seemed to happen for Black Marble’s sole primary member Chris Stewart. It’s Immaterial, his 2016 record on Ghostly International, showed a shift away from the coldest of his coldwave tendencies but he could only go so far while under New York’s chilly and suspicious arms-length embrace.
Now that he’s in Echo Park, one of the more urban neighborhoods in LA, he’s still drenched in the energy of urbanity; albeit surrounded by a profound natural beauty and a lot of sunshine. And on Bigger Than Life, his first release with Sacred Bones, Stewart shows that the shift to warmer compositions is complete. This is first obvious when you look at the cover, which shows warm embraces and light colors. When you open up the hood, you get vocals that are mixed front-and-center, fuller-sounding arrangements that carry with them a deep sense of immediacy, and a feeling that Stewart has finally come into his own. Catchy, 1980s-referencing synth-pop pervades even more this time around. On the poignant opener “Never Tell” that’s all clear right away and it only continues.
“Feels” is the best song on Bigger Than Life and fully realizes what is so excellent about the album: soulful, humanistic machines paired with deeply heartfelt vocals filled with the type of wistfulness that resonates with you at a cellular level.
Stewart reportedly wrote the record on his MPC device and sequenced it live to his array of synths — relying on a computer only for the recording end of things. “Feels” shows how clearly a success this approach was — especially on the vocals, which receive a lovely mist of a reverb treatment rather than a drench. It’s not just lyrics like “Well I’m stuck in a radio tower/Waiting for the summer that I’ll never see/Give me the lights/Show me the crowd/I’m stuck on a merry go round” that hit you. When he sings that simple refrain — “I used to have a radio show/With not a lot of time, though” — it’s not just overworked blogger/podcaster stereotypes like me who will feel something nostalgic. There’s a sense of something lost in the passage of time that arises within you, even if you’ve never lost anything at all.
In terms of an emotional gut punch, “Daily Driver” is a companion to “Feels.” There’s a deep sense of longing in Stewart’s vocals that drip consistently onto an arrangement that’s as potently minimalistic as early Vince Clarke compositions — albeit with a few more layers than Clarke could reasonably achieve in 1981.
Even with this newfound sense of warmth and wonder that ostensibly comes from moving across the country (and, really, a world away) from New York, Stewart’s lyrics still retain a Big Apple detachedness to them. On the propulsive and sacred “Private Show” — with notable guitar work from Emily Edrosa — Stewart sings about people who fake a sense of community to get ahead, while surreptitiously acting in their own self interest: “Everybody’s on their way to Heaven/Everybody’s gotta die to get there/Everybody knows, the only way to go is to set up a private show/Everybody lies to stay together.” Even so, he follows that up with a sense of hope: “Still everybody tries to stay together.” The fact that we even care to try to be part of something bigger than us is a good sign.
“Grey Eyeliner” is a catchy cut with a higher-paced, upbeat composition with some guitar jangles that would make Bernard Sumner proud — truly one of the highlights on the record. The lyrics function like a journalistic, psychological profile of a listless character named Careless Ida, who can’t seem to make up her mind. “Gimme some time careless Ida/I can see it in your face careless Ida/Make up your mind careless Ida/I can see it in your face careless Ida” is a mantra that comes off like a plea. We’re appealing to someone in our lives, or even to ourselves, to get on track — come on and figure things out already. Please?
Those are mere highlights from this brilliant 11-cut album. Stewart has a powerful knack for bringing out a deep and profound sense of the complexities of human existence from a limited set of tools — instruments that in the wrong hands would feel ferociously insufficient or, worse, not feel like anything at all.
Perhaps it’s hard to be cold with this much warmth around him in his new home. Or maybe there’s something more complicated and interesting at play here. Either way, Stewart is on to something extraordinary here and I hope he stays on this path.
Bigger Than Life is out via Sacred Bones on Oct. 25. Why wait, though. You can pre-order it right now.