On their fourth solo release in three years, the former Women member strikes a provocative balance of ’60s pop bliss and horror-show unease.
Two-thirds of the way through What’s Tonight to Eternity, the stakes are laid plain. In a spoken-word sample of religious testimony, a woman describes finding herself abandoned by Jesus, stuck in a kind of purgatory where she can neither live nor die. Fed up, she resolves to reject Satan, even if that means being cast into the ether. “I would rather spend eternity in nothing,” she declares, “than to spend eternity with you.”
On their fourth solo release as Cindy Lee in three years, Patrick Flegel sounds far more ambivalent. Equally seduced by shrieking noise and devotional beauty, What’s Tonight seesaws between joy and despair, body and spirit, heaven and hell. Many of its most infernal songs are also its most corporeal, grounded by throbbing baritone synths and bodily basslines. More optimistic tracks are either falling apart at the seams or sound as if a breeze might turn them into dust. It is a vision of two similarly unappealing choices: a physical world suffused with evil, and a spiritual escape that threatens to obliterate the self.
Cindy Lee emerged from the ashes of the Calgary quartet Women, which at the end of the aughts put out two workmanlike albums of psych-friendly lo-fi that sailed on the prevailing winds blowing out of Georgia and Montreal. Flegel eventually picked up the gender play of Women’s name and ran with it, with a new musical identity to match. “Ugh, I’m so bored of being a boy in a fuckin’ guitar band,” they’ve said about the birth of Cindy Lee, a project that sounds haunted by guitars, rather than built around them. “Last couple years it’s been just me, traditional drag-style.”
Women sometimes flirted with oppositional elements, shimmering guitar melodies joined by feedback glare. But as Cindy Lee, Flegel has vastly expanded these countervailing palettes of divine harmony and clamorous decay. With their brother Andrew joining on drums, What’s Tonight delivers these sonic qualities with more precision and more instability than any Cindy Lee record yet, refusing to settle for the reductive conclusion of an easy extreme.
What’s Tonight begins in Youth Lagoon-esque territory of lightly psychedelic whimsy, with blooping whale sounds over serene keyboards and a dash of smooth-jazz saxophone beamed straight from some 6-CD changer. Soon, though, the already decaying audio will be overwhelmed by shrieking static and aggressive squawks that, with an added beat, sound like they could go viral on TikTok—as if the placid recording studio were suddenly torn apart by a tornado. But, like Dorothy being whisked away to Oz, the storms that pepper the album lead somewhere fantastical. The epic “I Want You to Suffer” is a capsule of the album in song, with cherubic backing vocals that heel-turn into screams of trauma before ultimately dissolving into ecclesiastical organ.
Another, non-biblical carpenter has provided salve and solidarity for many who feel excluded and abandoned by the powers that be. As Karen Tongson wrote in Why Karen Carpenter Matters, the “profound despair underlying an intense California sunniness” in Karen Carpenter’s music, and her personal struggle with the anorexia that eventually claimed her life, turned her into an unlikely icon for many people who might feel otherwise alienated by the mainstream culture she was supposed to personify. This includes Flegel, who cites her story, artistry, and the musical magic she conjures “in the negative space, out of exclusion” as an inspiration for Cindy Lee.
The characteristic intimacy of Karen Carpenter’s voice is absent here, with Flegel’s earnest falsetto often rendered as a galactically distant echo. Instead, the singer’s presence is felt through other aesthetics often associated with her, like Richard Carpenter’s saccharine string arrangements and doo-wop-inspired backing vocals. Flegel has spoken about the way that performing in drag as Cindy Lee allows them to adopt a “diva fantasy,” and perhaps a protective costume of sorts is the key to surviving What’s Tonight’s hellish world. “Plastic raincoat,” they sing on the opening track, “protect me from rot.” But the retro fetishism here isn’t only limited to the cheerful. Cindy Lee also dabbles in the baroque horror-show affectations popular throughout the 1960s, with clomping harpsichord parts both baleful and strident.
Though suspicious of pat closure, the album’s final third ultimately realizes a middle path between nothingness and the pain of the world. The ruminative electric piano on “Speaking From Above” sutures the song’s harsh distortion to its fleshy bass, finding a satisfied groove amid the ongoing discomforts of being alive. And “Heavy Metal” filters this internal conflict through a parodic costume of girl-group fadeout, reaching a tentative rapprochement between these many selves. All dolled up in the past, the sacred and sinister can coexist—for now.
Buy: Rough Trade
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