It’s an audacious move to put a single song with vocals and lyrics in the middle of an otherwise instrumental album. There’s no avoiding the significance the words will take on, standing like a lone billboard in an otherwise empty landscape, inflecting and commenting upon their surroundings; whether intentionally or not, suggesting to the audience how they might interpret material that might be better off remaining abstract. You’d better have something good to say, and Gia Margaret does.

“I can’t really say where the memories fade/But some are burnt into my brain,” the Chicago composer nearly whispers in “City Song.” “I can’t really say what they meant to me/But now I’ll never be the same.” The lines come across like a mission statement for Romantic Piano, an album that often has the quality of wistful recollection: hazy outlines of melodies once heard, ideas left hanging unresolved, compositions that wind down just as they seem to be getting going. Sometimes, it sounds as though Margaret started with a full-fledged song, added ornamentation on piano and electronics, then stripped the song itself away, so that what’s left is like a frame without a picture. Or a lingering memory of a scene whose significance has since faded.

Romantic Piano has far more personality and strangeness than its almost aggressively generic title suggests. Margaret, who called her previous album Mia Gargaret, clearly has an appetite for impish absurdity. This album opens with “Hinoki Wood,” which practically dares you to slot it in with the sort of faceless playlist fodder that the album title suggests. The chords are simple; the recording is exquisitely close, with the softly tactile sound of felt hammers on piano strings nearly as present as the notes themselves. But the melody’s curlicues are too sprightly, too mischievous, to settle in the background for tuned-out, vibes-only listening.

Just when you think you’ve got the album’s sensibility figured out from the title and the opener—a charming piano miniature with more wit and vivacity than mood music requires—the second track pulls that assumption out from under you. Built around a flickering drone, with a field recording of soggy footfalls for percussion and no central tune to speak of, “Ways of Seeing” resembles a piano-centric version of Christian Fennesz’s gorgeous guitar-and-laptop abstractions. We’ve already gotten far afield from the surface sensibility of “Hinoki Wood,” though the placidly inquisitive mood hasn’t changed much.

These subtle reversals of expectation recur throughout Romantic Piano. The album’s instrumental and harmonic palettes are deliberately limited, and its emotional tenor is steady, but within these apparently tight quarters Margaret finds space for reinvention with every track. It’s a solo piano showcase—no, it’s electronic ambient music—no, it’s a singer songwriter album that happens to feature very little singing—no, it’s soaring post-rock, presented in miniature. At one point, it’s a guitar record, bringing to mind the meditative understatement of Windham Hill founder William Ackerman. (That track, which reveals Margaret’s remarkable sensitivity and rich tone on an entirely different instrument than the one she’s ostensibly here to play, is titled in typically deadpan style: “Guitar Piece.”) Small changes over the course of a single composition register as quietly monumental: a single chord from just outside the key in the otherwise purely diatonic “A Stretch”; a tweak to the EQ that edges the drums slightly closer to foreground partway through “La langue de l’amitié.” Each of these moments carries an emotional charge, though the particular emotion can be difficult to articulate.

Romantic Piano feels self-consciously minor despite its surplus of ideas: over in 30 minutes, with many of its tracks getting in and out in under two. One of them, “Sitting at the Piano,” sounds like just that: approaching the instrument, spinning out 30 seconds of delicate, possibly improvisatory figuration, and then moving on. The most ambitious track by far is “City Song,” which remains in keeping with the album’s overarching wispy atmosphere despite its more conventional song form and prominent vocals. Margaret’s first album, There’s Always Glimmer, was a straightforward singer-songwriter effort, and on “City Song,” she demonstrates how she might find new resonances within that mode, bringing it closer to the impressionistic ambiguity of Romantic Piano’s instrumentals—namely, by treating her voice with the same attention to timbre, arrangement, and silence that she treats every other sound; layering it, gently processing it, making it as malleable and expressive as she makes her primary instrument.

Besides the singing on “City Song,” there are a few other legible words on the album. At the end of “La langue de l’amitié,” a sampled speaker philosophizes: “While no one has ever successfully defined music, we can at least permit ourselves to say that it is a language of feeling.” At its best, the music of Romantic Piano approaches the promise of that sentiment, speaking the feelings that words cannot.

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Gia Margaret: Romantic Piano