Jonathan Bree’s third solo album, Sleepwalking, released via the artist / producer’s own label, Lil’ Chief Records, is out this week. Previously we’ve talked about “Say You Love Me Too”, and “Valentine” – but now we can really get into it.
Fans of the New Zealand artist will know him from his public work, starting with The Brunettes, the indie-pop duo who signed to Sub Pop back in 2003. That band was a good reflection of Bree’s passion for the sonic treatments of the 1960’s. His approach to production across the four Brunettes albums, and an equal number of EPs, displayed a deep understanding, and affection for the works of his heroes. The influence of Brian Wilson and George Martin tampered with four-track techniques, and the results were solid. Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks, the Brunettes debut album, can be slated up as a damn-near perfect record.
Going solo for Bree allowed progress into a more complete vision. We can guess an element of control-freakism is required to pursue a vision so perfectly articulated. The aesthetic across music, videos, and album artwork reflects the kind of focus only possible when a singular vision is pursued. In 2013 The Primrose Path album revealed a darkness that had been hinted at, but not so clearly developed with The Brunettes. There’s a sense of isolationism, longing, and odd connection about that record. If it was an image of where the artist stood at time of release it was also a hint at the direction he was interested in pursuing. This was an artist stood on the outside, looking further out. Untouched by the fleeting fashions and trends of the contemporary scene, Bree was developing his own style. It was remarkable.
Here we are in 2018 with Sleepwalking. The approach to production – capturing the energy of performance, and honing that sound of psychedelically-tinged 60’s chamber pop – is done better here than anywhere in the artist’s back catalog.
You know how when you listen to Rubber Soul you hear The Beatles move away from what was expected of them? The fab four back away from the mop-tops, and slowly press into their future. Here’s a sitar making things paisley (Norwegian Wood), here’s a stripped-back surrealism. (Nowhere Man) that’s the kind of statement we hear here. Bree is touching upon the sound that’s informed by different places in the timeline of his own ambition. He somehow, after years of pursuit, snares all the elements – brings them in, and he assembles them in a very modern collection. This sequence of tracks sounds like the record that Bree has been moving toward for a long time.
It feels like Bree is interested in the psychological fault-lines that run through subjects, as well as through forms. The phenomenon of sleepwalking is a good metaphor for the place where we simultaneously occupy two places, but are not fully present in either space. Oddly confident, oddly shy, there is a certain darkness to this collection as Bree shares an unsettling frustration with some aspects of modernity. However, there is also a great deal of eyebrow-raising joy – groovy percussion, beautiful string work, and melodies that linger long after the final track. Jonathan Bree occupies the very modern now. The place where differing views meet is clearly of interest – and a number of duets underline the tone of the album.
“Say You Love Me Too”, a track featuring Catalan singer Clara Viñals is perhaps one of the easiest access points to the album. There’s a groove on this thing that challenges anyone to move beyond. You don’t spin this thing just once, and you certainly don’t move beyond the video without replay. (Dear Jonathan Bree, please issue an extended remix of this track) The color-treatment of the video is a fair reflection of how Bree views the pitch of things. Make it clear, then make it misty.
Elsewhere on the album, Bree’s regular collaborator Princess Chelsea lends her voice to more than one track. “Static” is a pleasingly surreal song. Princess Chelsea’s voice occupies breaking-point tenderness. Bree’s own vocals are passed through a filter to relay the remoteness of modern affairs; reliant on text, emojis, and all that other stuff. Again, we’re discussing dualism. Emotions are real. Emojis are not real. Words are not real. Texting, sexting, and sparring over a dehumanizing network – there’s a beauty, but a confusion expressed for the reliance on these things.
His ear for the darker utilities of pop music, served in baritone, has drawn similarities between Jonathan Bree and Serge Gainsbourg. But there’s something just as close to the spirit of Leonard Cohen in the world of Sleepwalking. The darkness, the intelligence of wit, and a spare approach to lyrical play – propped by angelic female vocals – show a man who couldn’t have achieved this level of insight without committing, fully, to the journey. When Bree sings of bringing “morning coffees by the bed”, and that “most people are crushed into servitude” in “You’re So Cool” he’s echoing the pathos, (and bathos) that Cohen deployed to pour spirit into song. It’s a fucking masterstroke.
In wearing a mask, and having a band of supporting mannequin-like musicians, Jonathan Bree toys with identity, expectation, and the significance of himself within the music. The framework is nothing, and yet it’s integral to the atmosphere for the work within. There is something telling in our approach to invisibility, and Jonathan Bree’s removal of self reveals his self-confessed reclusive nature. It also reveals the heart of art and process. Again, he avoids fashion and offers refined style.
Closing track “Fuck It” is a well-weighed parting blow. At one moment resigned to a world where it’s “survival of the dimmest”, Jonathan Bree also acknowledges his own limitations. He lands his final words, knowing he’s done his best. He also presents alternatives in the solace he finds in a magical otherness. Whatever comes will come.
On Sleepwalking Jonathan Bree, who has never slouched, occupies a place which few others achieve. He’s made high art of pop.
HURRY – LISTEN – JONATHAN BREE
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