Braids, in their fourth album Shadow Offering, occupy the liminal space between dream-pop and alternative rock whilst somehow being in conversation with ’80s synthwave. Ultimately, it’s not always easy listening. What Braids offer instead is nine tracks that are as vibrant, melodramatic and self-assured as they are confessional. Often praised for their musical ingenuity, Shadow Offering is expected in its unexpected interweaving of organic instruments with colourful electronics.
However, there is a confidence that underlines this album that hasn’t been seen from Braids before. This can especially be seen in the epicentre of the album: Snow Angel. A nine-minute stream of consciousness track that would put Jack Kerouac to shame, about everything from climate change, broken iPhones, white privilege and motherhood. Lyrically present in the events of future history happening at the moment, this is the only time in the album Standell-Preston’s tremulous vocals could be considered ugly. It’s brilliant. Snow Angel is confused, slipping between melodic and cacophonous, but that’s the point. The riotous screams of “20 bucks at H and M baby” is a true highlight that will make you keep hitting repeat.
It could be argued that Braids’ “genre” – if you were to try and bite the bullet and offer them a genre – lies somewhere with the word ‘experimental’ before it. Indeed, the best part of Shadow Offering comes when you think you’ve caught the soul of the album, because Braids won’t hesitate to prove that you haven’t. Young Buck, the lead single, is miles away from the expansive Snow Angel. With the playfulness of Native Speaker’s Plath Heart, Young Buck begins sounding like it would be at home on the Stranger Things soundtrack, then whips around at breakneck speed, tyres screeching, from ’80s synth to a killer rock-pop chorus. The beat is seductive, Standell-Preston’s voice is smooth honey, and the structure is slick. Braids’ edges are smoothed out on this track by the production of Chris Walla, the result is a streamlined ode to an unworkable love. Young Buck sparkles with animal magnetism.
Fear Of Men is, despite its name, the most jovial of this album, reminiscent of a more contemplative Lemonade. More minimalist and contained than songs like Upheaval ii and Here 4 U, Fear Of Men is still fairly heavy on texture and intricacy. It is hopeful, its synth slightly to the left of a jubilant iPhone alarm clock, with a lyrically heartfelt chorus. It is both groovy and poignant. However, no track is more poignant on this album than Eclipse (Ashley), the result of one take after a hiking trip to see the eclipse; it is standout lyrically and vocally. This track covers the deep love of friendship with the beauty of nature and self-reflection. The abstraction of those who eclipse our lives can sometimes be a negative shadow, as seen in Young Buck, but Eclipse (Ashley) shows the glowing light at the edge of an eclipse, one of hope. This hope permeates the album, even in its most melancholy moments.
Braids couldn’t have picked a better finale for Shadow Offering than Note To Self. Slow to build, the focus at first is on the delicate vocals that soar with sharp lyrics: “I tire of me sometimes/just like I tire of you/only I’m stuck with this/ can’t leave this body”, but the track then swells to orchestral like proportions. It is a finale the likes of which Game Of Thrones could only have hoped to achieve. Shadow Offering does not do half measures, even its quietest, most acoustic track Ocean is finely calibrated.
Overall, Braids’ fourth album is carefully artistic, exploring the light and shadow of loving and being loved. At times superfluous, at others explosively brilliant, it is more emotive than their previous releases and rather than shy away from this, the band jump in with both feet. With lyrics that pertain to the current disillusioned millennial generation, Shadow Offering is a rich emotional tapestry of sound. A lot of it shouldn’t work, and yet you are left wanting more. Weirdly wonderful.