The agile singer-songwriter smoothly transitions from the effortlessness of his 2017 debut to a sophomore record rich with complexities.
There’s an opacity baked into the technicolor fever dreams of Knox Fortune’s solo work, euphoric washes of largely synthetic instrumentation—all of which begs to be played outdoors. His vocal inflection, usually multi-tracked in fuzzy layers, is at once ageless and genderless; his arrangements embrace industrialism (the featured instrument on “Strange Days,” the mesmeric standout from 2017’s Paradise, is a clattering spray can) as often as they hearken upon well-worn new wave acts. His music is so enveloping and bright that at times it leaves you waiting for the other shoe to drop—for the warm hooks to swerve offkey and for Fortune’s flower-child bliss to turn sour.
That moment never arrives on his sophomore effort Stock Child Wonder, a record so expansive that its high isn’t dulled by mood stabilizers. Fortune’s absorbing melodies are subtler than they first appear: he rarely employs the same verse structure twice, and he frequently places instrumental breaks where you expect a chorus to be. The drum-based tracks “Static” and “Shirtless” are embellished with double-time vocal passages; and the offbeat synth on “Sincerity” allows Fortune to play loose with the time signature. If Paradise’s seeming effortlessness was its most charming quality, Stock Child Wonder’s unassuming formal complexities are an even greater testament to Fortune’s strength as a songwriter.
Yet the melodies are only half the equation—as a producer, Fortune is equally devoted to presentation. The gauzy engineering, which might have been used as a crutch, instead provides leeway for his more eccentric impulses. “Shirtless” kicks off with a campfire guitar and closes with a delicate violin arrangement, whereas “Gemini” juxtaposes disco strings with Caribbean-sounding drums. The Elliott Skinner duet “Morning Light” is sequenced as the album’s centerpiece, a nearly six-minute percussion-less suite highlighted by an austere trumpet solo. Its sincerity isn’t entirely discordant, but it’s enough of an anomaly to seem slightly out of place on Stock Child Wonder, its ponderousness never revisited.
Fortune got in on the ground floor of Chicago’s 2010s rap renaissance, producing for Joey Purp and Vic Mensa (who bestowed Fortune with his stage name) and notching a Grammy for his work on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. Although Fortune’s solo records are more reminiscent of Beck than Do or Die, there are intuitive callbacks to Chance and the Social Experiment’s creative milestones and the frenzied idealism with which they stare down addiction and trauma. Given the overtly Christian tones of Chance’s subsequent music, Stock Child Wonder offers welcome reminders of the low-stakes innocence and exuberant spontaneity that made Acid Rap and Surf irresistible. On the energetic “Hideout,” Fortune sings, “We used to hide out in back of our house/Lay in the garden and cover our mouths.” It’s the same brand of first-person-plural snapshot found in Chance’s coming-of-age diaries and roller-rink reminiscences, but where Chance hinted at the despair lurking behind his drugs and faith, Fortune mostly eschews remorse: on “Come Over,” getting high and growing up are just things to do, preferably with a nice woman at your side.
Stock Child Wonder pulls from a broader sonic palette than Paradise, yet feels surefooted even at its most discursive. Its disparate threads are held together by Fortune himself, who, for all his restraint as a performer, is at once earnest and undramatic. While his unvarnished lyricism yields a few bricks (“I couldn’t run unless I ran with you,” he croons on “Morning Light”), his best writing bears a visual alacrity, which brings to mind Evan Dando’s moony nostalgia. “Shirtless” finds its narrator and a companion riding around aimlessly in a sticky-seated Volvo. The narrative doesn’t really go anywhere, which is beside the point; in the final verse, Fortune sets the scene: “My skin stuck to the leather, on the couch in your apartment/In a heatwave in October, back when phones were Motorolas.” Even the ostensible breakup songs, “Change Up” and “Sincerity,” are so unflaggingly optimistic as to feel aspirational. Fortune doesn’t radiate naivete so much as he does unflappability.
The final track, “Always,” a rapturous love song, breaks through Stock Child Wonder’s pleasant haze. The three-chord piano melody is the simplest on the album, and while its placement doesn’t undermine the rest of the record (as a finale, it recalls Mac Miller’s “Youforia,” the uncharacteristically ardent windup of Watching Movies with the Sound Off), it’s the only song that might accurately be labeled a ballad. Fortune stretches his vocal range, straddling countertenor and falsetto, and belts the swelling chorus. As a coda, it’s a tantalizing suggestion that he’s still only providing us with a glimpse.