Trading under their middle names, Nick Delap and Greta Carroll are relative newcomers to Manchester’s burgeoning synthpop scene, their contemplative compositions placing them at the opposite end of the spectrum from Hurts’ hands-in-the-air anthems and LoneLady’s ear-bending grooves. In fact, one doesn’t even have to press play to understand what kind of record Jem is: on the album sleeve, Bernard + Edith is given in Arabic, and intertwining hands turn out to be those of Carroll’s mother and grandmother, the photograph taken shortly after the latter’s terminal cancer diagnosis. It points the way to a curious mix of exotic, Eastern sounds and themes of love, loss and mortality.
Opener Wurds lands exactly where one might expect, its Oriental-style keys and barely-there pipes leaving plenty of space for Carroll’s arresting harmonies. Delap girds the mix with the kind of running bassline that reappears regularly to keep affairs ticking over. Dagger, on the other hand, is a touch more muscular, its gentle Wye Oak-like intro suddenly stepping aside for a throbbing, thudding passage in which Carroll’s vocals veer between Lana Del Rey and Kate Bush. Delap then takes the reins, his tempo rubato percussion teasing the listener’s ear. It proves to be Jem’s hardest hitter: Crocodile follows up with slightly askew harmonies that sound suspiciously sinister, while the steel drums on recent single Tidal Wave are mere window dressing on an otherwise dark and moody construction.
Nevertheless, these tracks meet their remit, calling to mind the artful acts that have so clearly influenced Bernard + Edith’s sound, including Cocteau Twins, Portishead and Massive Attack (Twin Peaks fans may also have their interest piqued from time to time). It is testament to the album as a whole that missteps are so conspicuous; China is the worst offender, consisting of generically Asian noises and pitch bending so restless it’s as if Delap has only just discovered his synth came with that feature. Fortunately, an album highlight follows in the form of Heartache, its brooding, pulsating chords providing the perfect backdrop for Carroll’s jazz-like freewheeling. A lush chorus interjects, pushing the track in a vaguely dubstep direction (think a lethargic AlunaGeorge).
Poppy’s percussion echoes that on Japan’s Ghosts, its pulse augmented by Delap’s club-like beat, but Jem’s final third plays out with few further surprises. Instead, Bernard + Edith continue to plough their furrow, alternating between quiet ambience and pseudo-danceable flourishes that give the album its own ebb and flow. Underwater repeats the feat in four minutes, its liquid-like component parts coming together to form a gorgeous whole that flows across the mix like waves lapping on a shore.
It isn’t always easy to infer meaning – the repeated refrain on Girls Night Out is especially unsettling – and there’s cause to believe that the pair sometimes play their cards a little too close to their chests. Indeed, as was the case with The xx’s debut, one can’t help but imagine the glorious racket Bernard + Edith could make if they operated with more abandon. But that’s not the point on Jem, a thoughtful debut on which art is sorrow, sorrow is art and Eastern influences are incorporated deftly. Most of the time.