Helena Deland writes songs about love from the vantage point of a dream state. The Montreal-based songwriter’s music channels feelings of derealization and disconnect: those moments when your body no longer feels like your own, or your words seem to hang like language suspended, illuminated in midair. Deland writes in fragments: On her last release, a strange series of EPs later packaged as an album titled From the Series of Songs “Altogether Unaccompanied”, she told cryptic and poetic stories tinged by psychedelic drugs and loneliness and longing. She spoke in hushed couplets paired with swollen bass and guitars that felt sympatico with early Elliott Smith albums. Deland’s stunning, intricate debut album, Someone New, a record about the complexities of new relationships, is a more cohesive, full-color version of those early sketches, with the sharp angles and harsh lighting of a Dutch vanitas painting.
Despite its frequent darkness and sullen mood, Someone New shudders with a digital glow. Deland often takes the structure to what might otherwise be a simple indie-rock song and imbues it with guitar processing, looping, and stormy, low-end frequencies. The textures she favors come from the ’90s, landing somewhere between the breathy, honey-coated vocals of Hope Sandoval and the heady, fermented eroticism of Portishead. Opener “Someone New” is cut from the same cloth as Portishead’s “The Rip,” with its glassy kick drums, looped vocals, and unexpected key changes at the song’s midpoint. Deland evokes the torrent of complicated emotions that come from kissing someone new for the first time: “I’ll be covered head to toe/In the faded flower patterns of/Memories/Of nights like these,” she sings as the song softens and warms, like a body lowered into a steaming bath. Then, there’s a deep exhale, and the music’s prettiness gets bruised a bit. Deland sighs a promise to give herself a “fucking break,” in the way that one might in a moment of uncertainty, when a new person’s face is hovering in front of your own and the noise inside your head drowns out everything else.
Someone New replicates the push and pull of a complicated relationship, one that Deland often seems to feel ambivalent about. “Dog” is decadent like roses resting on a velvet blanket: Muffled loops of lo-fi guitars and distorted drums seem to emit from a jewelry box while Deland’s voice is coolly removed, as if dissociated from the situation at hand. She sings about a potentially unhealthy relationship, wryly likening herself to a dog on a leash. “Truth Nugget” zeroes in on the feeling of being unknowable in the eyes of another. “I am another solid mystery when it comes to you/Michael, I’m the puzzle in the other room,” she sings, her eye contact unwavering. Meanwhile, “Smoking at the Gas Station,” underscores the volatility of Deland’s situation. She sings placidly about the risk of losing oneself in another person: “Trace the outline of my hand/So I’m reminded where I end.” Disembodiment and derealization, as conditions inextricable from the nascent stages of love, reach their apotheosis on the bloodshot “Pale,” where the bass gets so noisy it gives the sensation of having your ears duct-taped to a subwoofer. “Spending this time/In my naked body’s/Not making it familiar to me,” Deland sings in a tone that is unnervingly calm and chill, as if the feeling of corporeal alienation that accompanies standing naked in front of a new lover were as anodyne as buying orange juice.
“Mid-Practice” is the record’s most understated song, so subtle you wouldn’t be faulted for missing its brilliance on first listen. Percussion clicks like beads on an abacus, and guitar swims in a reverberant haze. Deland sings of waiting and loneliness, of “rehearsing love ’til it’s real.” “What I find worse/Than a love that hurts when it’s captive/Is a love that thrives/On being the hunter,” she sings in a daze, in conversation with herself. “Off I go again,” she continues—yet for a hunter, she sounds remarkably placid. You can almost imagine her smiling as she sings the line. It’s jarring. As a songwriter, Deland has a gift for creating extreme juxtapositions as bewildering as palm trees on Mount Everest, always managing to sound extraordinarily at ease while tackling complex thoughts about human existence. Her songs are like islands: self-contained, gorgeous little worlds where nothing is obvious—especially the genesis of love and its unsteady first steps.
Buy: Rough Trade
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