Synth-pop auteur Nandi Rose renders a nuanced, deeply compelling portrait of a woman turning away from the world just when she needs help the most.
There’s always been a sense of disquiet in Half Waif’s swirling electro-pop. Engulfed by clouds of synth and feverish beats, frontwoman Nandi Rose searches for resolution to her nebulous inner turmoil, a constant battle between her desire to be known and her suspicion that she never truly will be. On her last album, Lavender, she looked outwards, hoping to find meaning in the places and people around her. On songs like “Lavender Burning,” New York represented the permanent home and stability she longed for on the road.
While writing her new album The Caretaker, Rose lived in one place (her home in the Hudson Valley) and wrote without a band. Though she grapples with the same turmoil as before—her hunger for love, her need for solitude, the loss of certain friendships—she is now coping alone. The other people on the album largely feel incidental, written into songs, as she says on “Siren,” only when she feels uninspired. Even falling in love, which she describes as “taking on the burn,” is an acquisition of someone else’s pain, a burden she carries by herself. An acutely self-aware writer, Rose realizes the emotional shortcomings of this approach. She renders a nuanced, deeply compelling portrait of a woman turning away from the world just when she needs help the most.
When she finished writing the album, Rose realized the perspective was not hers, but that of a character, someone who has been “entrusted with taking care of this estate, taking care of the land, and she’s not doing a very good job. The weeds are growing everywhere, and she’s not taking care of herself.” There are sonic ties to her home, from the bug sounds in the mix on “Lapsing,” which were recorded in her backyard, to the introductory beat on “Halogen 2,” which incorporated the sound of a train she can hear from her porch. She often sings about her home, though more as a shelter than as an estate she’s capable of caring for. On “Window Place,” she anticipates an oncoming winter, a dark period of pain and loneliness that she chooses to wait out from her room, watching her life pass by as if looking out of a window. This sense of passivity permeates throughout the album, often symbolized by the passing of the seasons. Instead of taking action to address her frustrations, on songs like “Blinking Light” she waits for summer, an imagined future when she will inevitably feel better.
Rose’s best songs build into revelations, cracking the surface to reveal another truth buried deep inside. On The Caretaker, she uses this effect to portray the titular character as an unreliable narrator, someone who is trying to assert her independence, but who might be coming apart more than she acknowledges. Album highlight “Ordinary Talk” begins with a bold cry for independence: “Baby don’t worry about me/I don’t worry about you.” Buoyed by a relentless drum beat, Rose sounds self-assured. But half-way through, the drums cut out and we’re introduced to her most bare emotional truths; she’s crying in her coffee and sitting in the dark. As the drums work back in and the vocals layer into an ethereal cocoon, she builds her loneliness into a spectacle, allowing it to intermingle beautifully with her desire for solitude. “Blinking Light” further heightens the tension between Rose’s self perception and reality. She sings with such resolution that she’ll be better by June that you’re genuinely startled when the chorus comes in, shepherded by her crystalline vocals: “I know what you’re thinking/I’m circling the drain.” As Rose paints an inept but tenacious character at its center, The Caretaker emerges as a deeply relatable portrayal of attempted self care.
There’s a grandiosity, almost a theatricality, to these songs, from the layered vocals to the flourishes of ornate imagery—morning stars, bodies full of thorns — to the maturity of Rose’s voice, which soars on nearly every chorus on the album. But grounded in mundane moments, the music never feels overwrought; the sun sets, the laundry gets folded, winter comes and then summer does. The instrumentation also expertly mirrors the emotional tenor of the lyrics, like the chugging beat and distorted vocals “Halogen 2,” which convey Rose’s gnawing anxiety and loneliness. As a result, the rich orchestral compositions on The Caretaker sound effortless and fluid like cursive. In crafting such complex, accessible songs, Rose reveals just how ordinary it is to feel at war with yourself, to not know what you want or how to get it.
The Caretaker is roughly divided in half by the improvised, droning synth interlude, “Lapsing,” which marks the distinction between the anxiety-ridden first half to the second half, which emits flickers of hope. Rose was listening to a lot of Robyn when writing this album and the emotional influence is clear; joy and despair intermingle beautifully on every song. The album opens with a wave of inky synth as Rose’s character endlessly runs uphill with no end to her frustration in sight. By contrast, album closer, “Window Place,” a cinematic ballad of piano, synth, and umpteen layers of reverberating vocals, sounds triumphant. She does not overcome her pain, but accepts it as transient, which feels freeing enough. The Caretaker’s fixation on the future and fumbling attempts at self care make it an eerily relevant quarantine listen. This is an album of waiting for things to get better but not knowing exactly how or why they will. At a time when our government has failed us so badly that the best response to a global pandemic is individual action, these songs validate the confusion and anxiety of tackling a colossal burden alone. But as Rose tries to comfort herself with visions of summertime, the Caretaker can ultimately provide some solace that a brighter future will come, and hope in our abilities to care for ourselves, no matter how messy the journey is.