Out of all the increasingly prolific and impressive vanguard of Montreal based musicians, the curious character of Sean Nicholas Savage is perhaps the most fascinating. The young singer, songwriter and producer has been cultivating a true cult persona with a number of primitive releases over the past four years for experimental Montreal label Arbutus. All of these collections of slight personal songs have established a songwriter with a keen ability to create his own compelling story. Savage’s music perilously navigates the divide between heartfelt affection and knowing pastiche. The beauty of his music is your never know quite where you are with it.
Other Life is (approximately) his sixth album and, for any newcomers, it offers a fair introduction into Savage’s world, one in which every emotion, feeling and desire is reflected through an ultra minimal and slight melodic format. Every song here features little more than a rudimentary drum machine with bright melodic key board lines over the top. The main instrument is Savage’s striking voice. Much like his music, it can veer between a hugely affecting croon and a faintly creepy whisper, while also fluctuating between quivering emoting and tortured yearning pleas.
The songs here deal with familiar themes in Savage’s work. Love, relationships, dreams and death are regularly referenced. Opener She Looks Just Like You introduces a slightly self-loathing tone that continues throughout the album. Savage describes himself as “Just a circumstance in a mask,” as he addresses his lover. The music here is perhaps best described as washed out soul. Savage’s voice is reminiscent of any number of ’80s blue eyed crooners while the music often sounds like smoothed out, 80s sophisti-pop, albeit with a stranger edge that is always prevalent.
On songs like You Changed Me, Savage takes an intriguing turn into something resembling baroque folk tinged doo-wop. His vocal wavering as he delivers lines illustrating the overpowering nature of a close relationship: “You showed me how to scream,” he sings. It’s songs like this and the jazzy tropicalia of Change Your Mind that are welcome diversions on an album that suffers at times from its one paced style and the slightness of the songs. It can be easy to let these pleasant melodies just drift by.
To get the most out of this album it’s essential to pay close attention to the lyrics. There is the sense that this is Savage’s desire. He seems to paint himself as an enigmatic tortured character. Change Your Mind features him being addressed by someone who implores him: “Don’t be such a noisy boy, you better cool it down.”
Elsewhere, the emotions are at their sharpest on More Than I Love Myself. Conversely, this is a song that features by far the record’s bounciest melody. Here, Savage is racked with longing for a distant lover: unsure of himself and his place in the world, it’s on this song that you can be most assuredly certain that Savage is completely heartfelt as he sings: “How can I be a man, now that you’re a woman.”
Chin Chin is a song taken from Savage’s previous album Flamingo and it provides a divertingly subdued end to Other Life. Dark imagery abounds as he sings: “I’m begging you to give me that crazy feeling.” Perhaps the placing of this song marks the end of a passage of time for Savage and Other Life is his final statement before progressing onto something sonically more substantial. As ever, things with Savage aren’t that clear.
There’s no doubt that Sean Nicholas Savage is a supremely talented songwriter who shows great promise but a nagging doubt remains whether he is truly sincere in his work. There are moments of real passion here but also moments where you sense a degree of theatricality in his work. It’s no doubt an interesting conflict. For now, Other Life is a frustrating but rewarding statement from a fascinating pop character.