Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Bernice Eau de Bonjourno

Bernice have always been an intriguing prospect — a group of jazz-trained Toronto musicians making their own arty spin on pop music. Their last album was called Puff LP: In the air without a shape, a title that got at a lot of what the band is about, from the airy daydream space their songs inhabit to their skillful balance of the playful and the cerebral. But it also belied something about Bernice. In a way, everything this band does is about shapes. Those shapes may be sliding in and out of focus, they may be the recognizable boundaries of a pop song blurring outside the lines. Still, all along the way, that’s what has often given Bernice’s music its charm: You can peer through the gooey synths and sighing atmospherics and chirpy sound effects alike, and start to recognize the structure of something you know.

On the Puff LP, Bernice’s collective improvisatory background sometimes made the songs feel as if they were coming into being before you, as they unfolded. Now, for its followup Eau de Bonjourno, the band is perhaps more consciously manipulating established traditions than ever before. It’s an album that, as vocalist Robin Dann put it, “openly plays with the shape of a pop song.” Across Eau de Bonjourno, Bernice make good on that promise again and again. The album features some of their most straightforward material, but also songs that pull further into the other direction, memorable hooks balanced with spacier textures that could only emit from the deeper recesses of a person’s head.

Based on its initial singles, Eau de Bonjourno seemed as if it was going to simply lean into the former, prizing clearer melodies and welcoming sounds even while still warping them into the band’s own vernacular. Eau de Bonjourno was introduced with two of Bernice’s most direct songs ever, “Groove Elation” and “It’s Me, Robin.” While “It’s Me, Robin” was a conversational earworm — with a name alone that suggested a new kind of openness on this album — “Groove Elation” could almost be taken as a mission statement at first. It still had the odd synthetic shimmer of Bernice’s music, but the band slowly built it into something different, a rhythm you could almost dance to and a mellower iteration of euphoria.

“We come out of so many musical traditions and are trying to make something that’s not a direct descendent of any of them,” Dann added when describing Eau de Bonjourno. Indeed, Bernice and their new music remain hard to place — they have little to do with other notable names in the Toronto indie landscape, or with much else in the indie world in general. They do not loudly broadcast those musical backgrounds in any way that might lead you to say, for example, that Bernice is uniquely jazz-influenced in comparison to their peers. Instead, so much of it occurs in an in-between. Sometimes it’s like indie made new age, sometimes it’s like lounge music gone glitchy. Eau de Bonjourno manages to sound pristine but act unpredictably, all its glassy synths and soothing vocals floating above beats that stutter or randomly interject, chiming and pinging sounds crash landing all around the edges of these songs. You can almost hear that prompt, that idea of bending the shape of a pop song, in the actual sonic textures of the album. Most of Eau de Bonjourno sounds like someone dropped a beautiful crystal, and rather than breaking not into violent shards, it drifted off as glistening bubbles.

The same as Bernice’s sound can be hard to pin down, they make some unexpected choices with how Eau de Bonjourno is structured. After “Groove Elation” and “It’s Me, Robin,” the album settles into a long, meditative stretch. It’s a very slow-burn approach to a Side A; “Big Mato” and “Dry River Bed” and “Lone Swan” are all some of the most patient, most abstract tracks on the album. Clattering piano keys, melodies reemerging from murk, a more nocturnal tint; on “Dry River Bed” and “Lone Swan” in particular, Bernice suddenly approach a moody strain of electronica.

Eau de Bonjourno, in fact, has an overall older, wiser, wearier, and more shadowy tone than its predecessor. But that doesn’t mean Bernice have abandoned certain core elements of their identity. Lyrically, there is a purity that’s often run through Bernice’s music, or a quirky brand of innocence that’s sometimes led to people identifying a sort of childlike perspective in their music. That’s still there on Eau de Bonjourno. Take “Big Mato” for example, a song about a salad that turns to a song about love, a quotidian act turned cosmic as Dann works her way over the words “bowl of creation” in the chorus. There are images of animals — a dog hiding out beside a highway and a dry riverbed, a whole song dedicated to the tragedy of a swan that only sings when it’s about to die, a beaver chomping away on some wood.

That doesn’t mean that an album so restless musically is without its anxieties. “We’re living in a disaster/ We choose to see only what we want to/ I hurt, you hurt, we’re divided,” Dann sings in “It’s Me, Robin.” Bernice’s approach to music is open-ended enough that, even with as pointed as those lines seem, you can’t necessarily take it as a commentary on the outside world. (Right after, Dann pivots to career insecurities, turning it more specifically to the life of an artist.) But as the songs fester and morph around Dann, you can often feel a sense of searching — of a group of musicians pushing towards a sound, but also songs that can take their small, intimate observations and suggest they’re trying to communicate with you.

After that bleary section in its opening stretch, Eau de Bonjourno blossoms into an even more striking second half. “Empty Cup” and “Personal Bubble” are no less idiosyncratic than the rest of the material here, but both take last minute left turns towards the end — “Empty Cup” throbbing alive on a thumping beat for its final refrain, “Personal Bubble” managing to drastically recontextualize its erstwhile off-kilter chorus at the last moment. Dann repeats the same words, the same melody, but buoyed by pillowy new synths (including a pan flute-esque sound that conjures old video game soundtracks). It’s one of the best moments where Bernice take the shiny surfaces of these songs and flip them around into a totally new light.

From there, Eau de Bonjourno settles into a stunning final act. “Your Beautiful House” in some ways returns to the hazy expansiveness of the album’s earlier tracks, but now finds Dann in a digital cloud, reflecting on how she can no longer remember when she met a certain person, the feeling of their breath on a pillow. It’s a gorgeous song, and it sets the stage for the big climax of Eau de Bonjourno. The album’s penultimate track, “Infinite Love,” foregrounds ideas that were only ever teased in the world of Bernice. The beats still don’t remain completely linear. The music is still constantly under threat of destabilizing — or transforming. But the chorus is an honest-to-God R&B melody that eschews any kind of analytical remove in favor of an unfiltered evocation of the “infinite love” of the song’s title. It’s both salve and swoon, a moment of unabashed pop acumen and unchecked emotion that hits like a tidal wave after navigating your way through the odd corners preceding it.

It’s not that Bernice shy away from that kind of emotional space. That aforementioned beaver scene? That leads Dann to muse on the simple wonders of the world: “And I thought: How lucky can I be?/ I mean, just how big of a feeling can I feel?” Sometimes it’s easy to wonder what would happen if Bernice gave themselves over to those poppier, more cathartic moments — those big feelings — more fully, more consistently. But then they wouldn’t have quite the same impact. Amidst all the experimental qualities of Bernice’s music, the moments of cohesion function as clarity and release. They are tiny crossections where people can meet, fragments of relatability. After all the strange passages of Eau de Bonjourno, those moments where Bernice lock in as a band are not just little musical checkpoints, but someone tentatively reaching out their hand.

“We can live in the future,” Dann concludes in the album’s final song, “We Choose You.” And in a lot of ways, Bernice do feel like they make futuristic music — something not of this moment nor retro from any particular moments, but using recognizable-but-not-entirely-common sounds to speak in a new way. On Eau de Bonjourno, Bernice only barely smooth out the weirdness inherent to the band. But each time they do, they gesture towards something broader, an attempt to use pop forms as a way of more directly relating to each other, as a mechanism for closer connection. And as a result, Bernice starts to come into their own, crafting a fuller and more entrancing sound than in their older work. “Groove Elation” was a mission statement after all, summing up the ethos and aesthetic of Eau de Bonjourno from the very beginning: “Maybe we’re all evolving/ Maybe we’re already glowing.”

Eau de Bonjourno is out 3/5 via Telephone Explosion and figureeight.

Other albums of note out this week:
• Arab Strap’s As Days Get Dark.
• IAN SWEET’s Show Me How You Disappear.
• Tigers Jaw’s I Won’t Care How You Remember Me.
• Regional Justice Center’s Crime And Punishment.
• Adult Mom’s Driver.
• Pat Metheny’s Road To The Sun.
• Fruit Bats’s The Pet Parade.
• Alex Bleeker’s Heaven On The Faultline.
• dodie’s Build A Problem.
• AZITA’s Glen Echo.
• Painted Shrines’ Heaven And Holy.
• Zara Larsson’s Poster Girl.
• Paul Stanley & Soul Station’s Now And Then.
• John Sharkey III’s Shoot Out The Cameras.
• Mother Of Mars’ I Hear.
• Worn’s Human Work.
• Chevelle’s NIRATIAS.
• Glass Beach’s alchemist rats beg bashful (remixes)
• Worriers’ The Old Friends EP
• RINSE’s Wherever I Am EP.

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