Album Of The Week: Jay Som Anak Ko
Nostalgia has long been the sound of the future. Popular music is largely a game of reassembling existing pieces in stylish and appealing ways, of crossing x with y with z in hopes of stumbling upon something fresh. Genuine innovations are rare, and even music that set off revolutions has often looked backward: punks reacting against the excess of prog and arena rock by fetishizing the raw simplicity of early rock ‘n’ roll, grunge fomenting under the influence of Zeppelin and Sabbath, Arcade Fire repurposing the stadium anthems of Springsteen and U2. As told by his brother Bobby, A Star Is Born’s Jackson Maine summed it up like so: “Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave. Twelve notes, and the octave repeats. It’s the same story, told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”
In the new millennium, nostalgia cycles have seemingly shifted into overdrive along with the speed of pop culture in general. Moments disappear down the timeline so quickly now that people look back longingly at the events of two or three years ago as if they were another lifetime. Arcade Fire’s 2017 release Everything Now, one of many attempts to process this constant onslaught of stimulation, itself feels like it came out eons ago. Hip-hop production from 2015 already sounds retro, to say nothing of EDM beats from 2012. Soon enough, these all will become fodder for creative plunder, and chances are the familiarity of it will inspire many listeners to feel all the feels.
Simon Reynolds’ 2011 book Retromania famously responded to our collective obsession with the past by asking, “What happens when we run out of past?” Such warnings have not stopped artists from voraciously mining prior eras for material, remixing their inspirations into sonic collage. Drake, the decade’s most influential rapper, openly worships the late R&B icon Aaliyah and has repeatedly channeled his reverence for such figures into his own music and iconography. Three separate pop singles last year referenced Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” by name. Indie rock has long been overrun by artists reviving ’90s alt-rock aesthetics, and lately acts like Soccer Mommy and Japanese Breakfast have been edging into the early aughts, updating James Murphy’s complaint about “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s” by collapsing several decades together into a glimmering continuum.
What happens when we run out of past, apparently, is that we keep looking for new ways to combine the old ingredients. A generation that has adopted the destruction of binaries as its prevailing ethos has transferred that impulse into music, dissolving distinctions between the new and old, high and low, popular and obscure. Music has always evolved this way to an extent, but thanks in part to an aesthetic fixation on chill vibes common to a population that lives its life in front of screens, that sense of music history blurring together feels more pervasive than ever. Tame Impala’s festival-ruling psych-pop, the Chainsmokers’ holographic post-EDM soft-rock, Kacey Musgraves’ acid-fried country-pop sighs, Travis Scott’s dark twisted hip-hop fantasies, Ariana Grande’s multi-generational diva-pop, the War On Drugs’ hazy classic rock revivalism, a decades-spanning Taylor Swift pop blockbuster called 1989: even when it’s lucid, so much of this stuff hits like a dream.
So do Melina Duterte’s records as Jay Som. When Duterte launched the project four years ago, it was with lo-fi bedroom recordings that sounded dreamy almost by default, the material that Polyvinyl would release as Turn Into in 2016. Her 2017 debut album Everybody Works rendered her songs with crispness and clarity while retaining their ecumenical wooziness. “The Bus Song” was Lisa Loeb by way of Broken Social Scene; “Baybee” was Sade reimagined as one of Mac DeMarco’s post-chillwave chillouts; “1 Billion Dogs,” which could be My Bloody Valentine, flowed directly into “One More Time, Please,” which could be Jessie Ware. If anything united these tracks, it was Duterte’s way of finding the aching humanity in the mundane details of everyday life. “All of my songs are so different, but you know it’s me,” Duterte told Pitchfork at the time, and it’s true: Jay Som does not have an aesthetic so much as a mood.
That’s partially because 25-year-old Duterte has traditionally been the only unifying factor in Jay Som. When we named her an Artist To Watch, she talked about taking comfort in the insularity of private recording sessions. Part of the reason her music reflects her generation’s tech-addled introversion is because she herself is a tech-addled introvert, more comfortable privately documenting the nuances of her relationships than actually living in them. Anak Ko, her second Jay Som album, was also conceived in solitude during a writing retreat to Joshua Tree. Recording the album, she welcomed participation from her bandmates and a cast of collaborators including Vagabon’s Laetitia Tamko, Chastity Belt’s Annie Truscott, Boy Scouts’ Taylor Vick, and Justus Proffit, with whom she teamed for an EP between albums. But if they’ve helped to render Duterte’s visions more vividly, those visions remain her own expressly personal convergences of emotion and taste.
Anak Ko means “my child” in the Filipino dialect of Tagalog. It’s how Duterte’s mother, a first-generation immigrant, addresses her in casual conversation. Duterte adopted it as her album title because it connotes warm familial comfort, but also because a new album is her own offspring of a sort, born from its own kind of labor pains. At her parents’ urging, she threw herself completely into her craft, learning all the ins and outs of composition and production. “They were like, ‘If you wanna do music, you’ve gotta work hard,'” she told The Ringer.
She clearly took that guidance seriously. Operating as Jay Som’s sole songwriter, engineer, and producer, Duterte has once again come away with a diverse set of songs held together more by her own intangible presence than by stylistic similarities. Her life has changed a lot since Everybody Works — a move from the Bay Area to LA, a new romance, a turn toward sobriety, a shift from Bandcamp anonymity to something like indie rock celebrity — and all of that comes to bear on the stories she tells on Anak Ko. Yet just as biological siblings resemble each other, the album is unmistakably part of the Jay Som family of recordings.
Duterte says the new songs are largely about wrestling toward self-acceptance and promoting kindness. Sometimes that process involves calling out bullshit when you see it, as heard on the breakup narrative “Peace Out.” It’s easy to imagine “I’m selling myself short/ Pulling teeth to make it work” as part of the same tug of war that yielded “The Bus Song,” but this time instead of offering “time to figure it out,” Duterte lands on decisive action. The song is one of the heaviest in Jay Som’s discography, a brooding rocker a la Palehound or Jessica Lea Mayfield that builds to a cathartically crunching power chord riff. Similarly biting is opener “If You Want It,” an increasingly busy tangle of guitar and keyboard melodies that mirrors Duterte’s intensifying indignation.
Several of these songs seem to be about leaving toxic people in the past, another pillar of today’s prevailing wisdom. The breathtaking dream-pop suite “Superbike,” which pulls off Duterte’s stated intentions of merging Cocteau Twins with Alanis Morissette, leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But if I’m reading it right, the song finds her literally speeding away from a relationship gone sour: “I pick up the superbike/ Going 80 in the night… Gonna breathe until you’re gone.” Yet as Anak Ko progresses, the focus turns to Duterte’s own personal transformation and eventually into new frontiers of human connection. “I wanna change, I wanna change” becomes her mantra on “Devotion.” And although the most-quoted line on “Nighttime Drive” is on the one about “constructing shallow dreams of shoplifting at the Whole Foods,” the one that sticks with me is “My baby says I’m growing tough/ ‘Don’t let others define you'” — a winking pronouncement of progress that acknowledges how slow progress can be.
As usual, these snapshots inhabit disparate musical shapes. “Nighttime Drive” builds from drowsy acoustic strums to folksy violins out of “Come On, Eileen.” The drum programming on budding love song “Tenderness” evokes Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” yet the substance of the song is more like Mazzy Star attempting smooth jazz. The title track sounds like Mitski getting lost in the Drive soundtrack, its ominous synth clouds dissipating into glitchy manipulated vocals. And whispery closer “Get Well” feels like the sound of Duterte’s tension finally loosening up, its shimmering bass groove giving way to rich rhythm guitar and weepy pedal steel.
It all adds up to a striking panorama, the sonic equivalent of a well-curated Instagram profile on the edge of liminal space. Anak Ko’s seamless omnivorous meltdown seems to exist outside of time, classic and modern all at once — which, ironically, may be the trait that most clearly ties it to this moment. Yet Duterte continues to stand out among a legion of genre-flouting nostalgists. With just 12 notes and a lifetime of memories, she’s assembled another mesmerizing self-portrait.
Anak Ko is out 8/23 on Polyvinyl. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
•Taylor Swift’s as-yet-unheard pastel explosion Lover.
•Brockhampton’s Ginger, also still under wraps.
•Little Brother’s surprise comeback May The Lord Watch.
•R&B legend Raphael Saadiq’s Jimmy Lee.
•Rising hip-hop star Rapsody’s Eve.
•Jeezy’s coke-rap comeback attempt TM 104: The Legend Of The Snowman.
•Sheer Mag’s latest revved-up classic rocker A Distant Call.
•Ceremony’s art-punk dispatch In The Spirit World Now.
•The self-titled debut from Vic Mensa side project 93PUNX.
•Jidenna’s transcontinental hip-hop effort 85 To Africa.
•G Perico’s latest West Coast rap compendium Ten Eight.
•LA singer-songwriter Shannon Lay’s Sub Pop debut, August.
•Esther Rose’s rootsy debut You Made It This Far.
•Wye Oak drummer Andy Stack’s debut as Joyero, Release The Dogs.
•Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi’s latest CRX offering, Peek.
•Veteran rockers Redd Kross’ first album in seven years, Beyond The Door.
•Ghost Orchard’s warped bedroom pop collection Bunny.
•Rose Dorn’s melancholy West Coast indie set Days You Were Leaving.