The origin story of Stephen Steinbrink’s forthcoming album Utopia Teased has a certain inherent amount of shock value. The Oakland-based singer-songwriter, according to a press release, wrote and recorded it “stunned with grief in the months following the Ghost Ship fire” that killed 36 people in December of 2016 and devastated the DIY music community Steinbrink belonged to. He “ate LSD daily, bought a synthesizer, and locked himself in his shipping container studio, refusing to sleep for days.”
It’s a story that automatically evokes speculation of what that kind of reckoning taking place during a manic, hallucinogen-nursed breakdown might sound like: violent, shouting hardcore, spiritual folky pleas, or ambient drone rage, maybe. It’s a surprise to hear lovely melodic minimal pop remain his canvas. Last month he shared “Bad Love” and today he’s debuting the album’s second single, “Mom,” featuring fellow Oakland artist Melina Duterte of Jay Som.
It’s a track so gentle it sounds exhausted, with almost a country lilt. Steinbrink crams a portrait of fleshy detail into its fleeting two minutes, transporting us into his mind and a suburban Walmart parking where he drifts off listening to AM radio. He describes the way people tried to connect with him long after he had the energy or faith to make himself vulnerable: “You want to know me/ To understand how I became the one that I am… But I can’t talk about the fire tonight/ I can’t talk about Christmas plans at Starbucks/ Just for today I want to feel small.”
Backed by the subtlest of harmonies from Duterte, Steinbrink’s enigmatic vocals remain steady throughout. He evokes his own hellish brokenness as an observer, without ever bringing it into song. The placid effect is somehow more devastating than screams, cries, or prayers. Listen below.
01 “Bad Love”
02 “I Wanna Be Free”
03 “A Part Of Me Is A Part Of You”
04 “Empty Vessel”
05 “Maximum Sunlight”
06 “Zappa Dream”
07 “Coming Down”
09 “In Another Kind Of Dream”
10 “Become Sphere”
11 “You Could Always Leave”
12 “I’m Never Changing Who You Are”
Utopia Teased is out 11/9 via Western Vinyl/Melodic Records. Pre-order it here.