Joana Serrat – Big Wave

Big Wave starts with a big bang. A track called “The Cord” that in a little over three pummelling minutes upends most available notions of what to expect from a Joana Serrat record, the song ending with its chorus repeated by a voice like something lifted from the soundtrack of a low-budget ’80s horror film involving demonic possession or a field recording of a voodoo exorcism. Disconcerting isn’t quite the word, but it will have to do.

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The precocious Catalan singer-songwriter’s first couple of albums – The Relief Sessions (2012) and Dear Grand Canyon (2014) – mostly mixed handsome fingerpicking folk and country rock. Tracks like “Flowers On The Hillside”, “The Blizzard” and “So Clear” meanwhile essayed a kind of dreampop that recalled quintessential shoegazers Slowdive, whose Neil Halstead was a guest on 2016’s Cross The Verge, produced like Dear Grand Canyon by early Arcade Fire member Howard Bilerman, who’d been impressed by a demo tape Serrat sent him.

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For her next album, she wanted a more expansive sound and found it in Texas, at Israel Nash’s Plum Creek Studios, where she recorded 2017’s Dripping Springs. Nash produced with suitably symphonic panache and plenty of reverb. She was backed by the amazing band Israel had then, and they often sounded like a windswept Crazy Horse behind Serrat’s numinous voice. Guitarist Joey McLellan, now with Midlake, became an important collaborator, providing Serrat’s songs with a sweeping widescreen vivacity and co-producing 2021’s Hardcore From The Heart with Sonic Youth and Kurt Vile engineer Ted Young and Midlake drummer McKenzie Smith at their Redwood studios in Denton, Texas. His swirling soundscapes are essential components of both records that basically were albums of unfettered cosmic Americana, the kind that takes psychedelic flight, an often soaring starlit noise that reminded listeners variously of Crazy Horse, Mazzy Star and Cocteau Twins.

Big Wave, meanwhile, returns Serrat to the solo career she took a detour from on last year’s collaborative Riders Of The Canyon venture with Irish songwriter Matthew McDaid and Catalan musicians Roger Usart and Victor Partido. She went back to Denton to record it at Matt Pence’s Echo Lab studio, Pence producing, with assistance from McClellan, whose signature guitar is again all over the album. Pence has worked previously as a drummer, engineer and producer with Jason Isbell, Centro-Matic, American Music Club and John Grant. There’s much that he brings to the album that’s new to Serrat’s music. He starts by tethering it, harnessing its previous inclination to take off at every opportunity, basically reversing its gravity. A track called “Feathers” on an earlier Serrat album would have been a suitably fluttering thing, a song carried by a sweet melodic breeze or caught by a ruffling thermal; a rising current of air, possibly weightless. The track here called “Feathers” is an otherwise different kind of noise. Brutal, almost. An event horizon of boiling synths, drums going off like artillery in a canyon, writhing guitars. Where once her music was in almost constant ascent, here it plummets, sensationally. The last few minutes of “Freewheel” are like falling down a lift shaft with something very loud by My Bloody Valentine roaring in your ear buds.

There’s distortion and a swarming turbulence to nearly everything here, as unsettling as it is unforgettable. “Sufferer”, “Tight To You” and “The Ocean” are full of submarinal currents, brooding drifts. “Big Lagoons” is one long crescendo. Only “A Dream That Can Last”, the unbearably pretty “Are You Still Here?” and “This House”, Serrat’s bereaved voice set against Jesse Chandler’s grand piano, offer asylum from the general upheaval.

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This is a sound largely dictated by the new tone of Serrat’s songs. She’s previously written a lot about love – finding it, enduring it, losing it, whatever – and is clearly no stranger to romantic disappointment. There was something almost ecstatic, however, about songs like “You’re With Me Wherever I Go” and “Take Me Back Where I Belong”, a kind of rapture in the voltage of love gone wrong that you’re tempted to describe as transcendent. These new songs are on the other hand often quite violently distressed, seething at times, angry and accusatory. It’s as if she’s giving voice to a previously muted inner darkness, some deep unhappiness. There are references everywhere to voids, absences, erasures, vanishings, the feeling that every new beginning is merely the prelude to the nothingness around the next corner, dark premonitions that have inspired Serrat’s boldest, most singular album. This is brilliant stuff.

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