When you spend your first few listens to a new album trying to decide whether you’re disappointed or not, that’s not exactly a good sign. On Master Of My Make-Believe, Santigold has one big thing working to her disadvantage: When it takes someone a long time to record a sophomore album, people expect big things from the follow-up. The self-titled album that Santi released back when she was still called Santogold is now four years old, and in internet-hype time, that means Master Of My Make-Believe might as well be Chinese Democracy. Really, the long delay was more because of record-label bullshit than because of any indulgence on Santi’s part. But Master Of My Make-Believe doesn’t exactly seem like the sort of album that should take four years to record. It’s full of sharp but low-concept pop music, and it’s very much within the first album’s aesthetic universe. She didn’t disappear into her own brain and come back with a masterpiece. She made a sequel to her first album. And since the first album was very, very good, that turns out to be a plus.
Santogold was a slow-burner, which is rare for a breezy dance-pop album like that. I liked it OK on first listen, but it took a while to realize that I’d kept “Lights Out” and “L.E.S. Artistes” in constant rotation for months. Songs with hooks like that don’t necessarily reveal themselves at first. They sink their way deep into your brain, so deep you don’t even know they’re there at first. And it’s still early, but the same thing might be happening with Master Of My Make-Believe. With a few exceptions, the songs don’t necessarily kick with the headrush immediacy I might’ve hoped for. But I’ve had this thing on rotation all day, and I feel like it’s just starting to reveal itself.
The songs we’ve already heard, in some cases, are the weakest ones. The Knight Rider synth-tics and martial-stomp drums of “Go” sound nice, but the track doesn’t have the melody that those production tricks demand. “Disparate Youth” is a new-wave reggae move that really should be in Santi’s wheelhouse, but it still strikes me as weirdly cold and bloodless. Only “Big Mouth,” a sort of “Creator” redux, has the jittery force of her best updtempo tracks. But some of the new ones are just awesome. “Freak Like Me” is instantly-likable robo-dancehall with a great rhythmic push-pull and a nagging na-na-na chorus that I just love. And the mid-album one-two of “This Isn’t Our Parade” and “Riot’s Gone” are the ones where we learn that Santi’s gift for wistful, searching indie-pop is still very much alive. Nothing on the album really qualifies as a departure, but Santi’s lane is a wide one, and the album roams all over it. And even though I don’t like it as much as its predecessor right away, it’s already growing on me, and it has potential to grow further. So keep an eye on this one. We might not know how good it is for some time yet.