Kelly Lee Owens Masters the Dream Pop-Techno Divide on Inner Song
The genres might appear different at first, but Owens finds their enthralling overlap on her second LPMusic Reviews Kelly Lee Owens
Dream pop and techno might be vastly different genres, but they share a common goal. Where dream pop’s glimmering, reverb-soaked guitars and keyboards entrance listeners into a listless stupor, techno’s clattering 808s and simple, repetitive rhythms keep the party going. While these modi operandi at first seem diametrically opposed, a closer look reveals that both genres impart enchantment, nirvana, hypnosis and even healing—a night out at the rave is as palliating as an evening splayed out listening to Teen Dream.
Welsh songwriter-producer Kelly Lee Owens understands these genres’ powerful overlap more than any other musician in recent memory. Owens’ former career as an auxiliary nurse initially spurred her interest in healing frequencies (in an interview earlier this year, she recalled “holding people’s hand as they die”), and on her self-titled 2017 debut album, she explored these waveforms via gauzy electronic balladry, ambient techno grooves and serene vocals. The LP was at once a breakout critical success and sorely underappreciated. Owens’ jumping between heady euphoria, dancefloor bliss and oppressive gloom may have only appealed to a certain crowd (even if that crowd included St. Vincent and Björk).
With her sophomore album Inner Song, however, Owens potentially opens herself to a much wider audience. A thrilling, dynamic LP that overflows with life, Inner Song is full of dancefloor devotionals that easily rank among her most accessible creations to date. If Kelly Lee Owens gently opened the door between dream pop and techno, Inner Song rushes through it and builds a world where ecstatic, curative, untethered electronic sounds abound.
Owens’ strides are most evident in Inner Song’s club cuts. On her self-titled’s techno tracks, Owens tended to mine the swirling power of a single loop ad infinitum, but on Inner Song’s “Night” and “Jeanette” (named for her late grandmother), what starts as gentle allure spins out into black-lit, forceful rave intensity. “Melt!” is a raging climate-change banger that continuously builds in anger and urgency; it’s more in line with last summer’s fanged one-off single “Let It Go” than anything else on Inner Song. The transfixing, sweeping “On” hints at a cathartic dance explosion from its very first kicks, and its back half delivers on that promise in a peak display of Owens’ talent for simultaneously enthralling and dazing her audience.
The first half of “On” points to two additional huge Inner Song triumphs: Owens’ approach to dream pop here is as heavenly as it is lively, and it’s clear she’s become a far more self-assured, grounded lyricist. The line “Can only love as deeply as you see yourself / And you don’t see me / And so / Let go of the hope / That it could be,” from the pensive first half of “On,” is such a level-headed take on a breakup that it’s virtually holistic. On “L.I.N.E,” an immersive ballad as breathtaking and finely detailed as a Matisse painting, Owens exudes similar intelligence and bravery in prioritizing herself: “Love is not enough / To stay / I’d rather be / On my own,” she sings of an incomplete romance. “Re-Wild,” which glows like neon lights refracted through centuries-old crystals, details Owens’ recovery from a traumatic relationship. “Feel the power in me / Things are different in me… Allow the freedom in you / Free yourself with a truth / That’s already in you” might seem like hokey New Age mumbo-jumbo in lesser hands, but Owens makes these words sound thoroughly liberatory.
Even the guest lyrics are better on Inner Song, though only by default. Jenny Hval, who appeared on Kelly Lee Owens’ “Anxi,” is the 21st century’s poet laureate of the bizarre. But for Inner Song’s “Corner of My Sky,” Owens recruits an avant-garde all-timer whose work spans more than half a century: the one and only John Cale. As Cale—who, like Owens, is Welsh—narrates an unsettling tale about miners whose work destroys both the environment and their bodies, his incantations reinforce and magnify the song’s dreary drones, which recall many moments from Owens’ self-titled. “Arpeggi”—the year’s second prominent cover of the Radiohead classic—and “Flow” likewise resemble the self-titled’s bleakest tracks, but they showcase the rare moments where Owens mostly slips back into comfortable old territory rather than transcending and breaking new ground.
Owens wisely follows the dance-in-place desolation of “Flow” with “Wake-Up,” a white-sky pulse of effervescence. A track about the dangers of ignoring one’s negative feelings and experiences, it slowly cools from a diaphanous burst of energy to just Owens whispering “wake up, wake up,” as though relinquishing mesmerized listeners from Inner Song’s hypnotic grip. It couldn’t be a better ending to an album that’s a pulsing, living dream.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes he just sits. Follow him on Twitter for almost no original content and almost entirely retweets of truly mordant viral content or something funny Phoebe Bridgers said.