Long time readers of this column may have encountered me waxing lyrical about Melbourne musician Lucy Roleff before - be it in a discussion of her excellent dream-pop duo Magic Hands or in her capacity as a solo artist. If you haven’t had the good fortune to hear Roleff’s music, now’s the perfect time to get on board. Her debut full-length, This Paradise, comes out tomorrow (that's July 15!) via Lost and Lonesome, and I’m happy to tell you it’s a breathtaking ten-track excursion, already drawing comparisons to Jessica Pratt to Nick Drake... but, hackneyed as it may be to say so, ultimately a unique listen - informed by years of diverse musical practice.
Drop the proverbial/actual needle and you're greeted by a high, glassy, ambient tone - I’m guessing this is the bowed glockenspiel mentioned in the liner notes (shout outs to Tony Dupé and Claire Deak on various percussion and arrangment duties). Two more such notes to build a chord, a brief and pure sunrise that leads us into “Aspen.” The song has already been released as a single, arguably a daring choice given it’s such a sparse, melancholic track bereft of any obvious hook or chorus. Which is not to say it’s lacking. The song is a spellbinding entry point, floating like a seed on a breeze, soporific guitar arpeggios eddying over strings, harp, cymbals and that glockenspiel hum. Front and centre (albeit delicate in their delivery) are Roleff’s vocals - offering oblique, bucolic and evocative lines like “holy smoke, filling up the avenue / the clutter we burnt in my yard / orchards groan, with the weight of oranges / how a pine leans, with the weight of what’s blossomed and been.” It's common for folk music to reference nature, the home, and timeless sorts of vignettes. In this way, Roleff's choice of lyrical subjects are quite conventional - but she avoids sounding generic simply by being so good at it. Which is a pretty good tactic if you ask me.
“Haus” follows, and continues in a similar vein: both these opening songs are hushed but confident, driven along by warm guitar picking, and filled out by faintly psychedelic meanderings so as to recall Animal Collective’s “The Softest Voice” or Vashti Bunyan’s understatedly lush 2005 album Lookaftering. Together, they announce the tone of This Paradise, though “Haus” modulates briefly to a major key, giving a hint of Roleff’s sunnier profile - even if the song meditates on funeral wreaths, stairs “clotting” and sinks “choking.” Third entry “Hotel Interstate” takes that winter sunshine and runs with it, channeling late 60’s Joni Mitchell into a timely tale of love and doubt via long-distance telecommunication. It bobs and pirouettes, losing none of the record’s established gravitas in the process; clarinet, harmonies, piano and double bass all sneak in artfully to render the track an early highlight.
The title track confirms (if you were left in any doubt) that this album isn’t going to be about verses, choruses, or passing the old grey whistle test. It’s another slow-burn mosaic of fingerpicking and introspection, oscillating between major and minor tonalities like a gull riding a capricious wind, the tune's latter half freckled with electric guitar and cymbal foam. While on paper this record might’ve emerged from the independent pop scene, musically a song like “This Paradise” has just as much in common with Elizabethan folk and neo-classical composition. Hardly surprising, perhaps, to find out that Roleff is the daughter of a German opera singer, and she’s classically trained. Importantly, though, there’s nothing tokenistic or jarring about the more unconventional influences that have found their way in; what Roleff crafts is less a patchwork of antecedents, more a holistic approach that sounds like it’s been built from scratch, taking cues from others’ processes rather than their specific output.
Marking the half-way lilt, “I Held Back The Hair” offers clustered harmonies over metronomic guitar motifs and pools of saxophone (shout outs to Melbourne experimentalist Rosalind Hall) and cello. I can almost guarantee you this is the most ornate and beautiful song about holding back a friend’s hair while they spew you’ll hear this week. Such touches of ugliness in the lyrical trajectory feel crucial - it can’t all be lavender, mountains and paramours - there’s a realness here that binds the album’s otherworldly, mythic quality to its contemporary, youthful, urban origins.
Just as the dark and ruminative mood threatens to oppress, “Chasing the Dog” relieves the tension with a gorgeous up-tempo brightness, crystalline vocal lines skating over what might have been, in another life, a calypso guitar part. A mere two-and-a-half minutes, it leaves an indelible mark with its vivid imagery. Do I know what the song’s about? Not really, but that seems beside the point: each line resonates with me like a tiny piece of cinema, and the totality is pure and refreshing like a Hobart hilltop climb. Erstwhile single “Every Time” is the fading light to its predecessor’s noontime sun, a more contemplative turn still brimming with life. It focuses its attention on the nearby, the domestic, and the natural with a kind of animistic wonder: “the kettle huffs a sigh, curtains bow and chairs collide/ as we take the evening air, wattles fizz in Camden Square.” What feels like a peaceful reflection, however, soon turns towards someone the album’s press release calls a “vagabond lover” - and takes on a ambiguity that could read as menacing. “I’ll rattle at your doorway, I’ll give you the what for,” Roleff sings; “have the furniture removed, silver knives and jammy jewels.”
“How Will I Get That High?” is one of the most immediate tracks in the mix, the titular phrase providing a catchy springboard to spiralling guitar and flute chirps; “Two Children” intones a minimal missive to a father who “thanks the gods for their hidden champagne.” The charming “Jessica” provides a fitting kind of closure; upbeat but soft-edged, free-flowing but rhythmic, buoyed by contrapuntal flute and simple but gravid lyrics: “Jessica, half-asleep / answers the door / wearing your shirt.”
What Roleff has achieved with This Paradise is an uncommonly consistent, cohesive debut album - one that still teems with variety. With an emphasis on rich instrumentation and compelling musical gambits, it’s seemingly more a mood piece than an expression of a worldview but - like all the best records in the same vein - it offers glimpses into the artist’s inner life, her hopes, fears, memories and musings. Roleff paints us a landscape, dense with both beauty and solemnity, a hazy horizon always forthcoming - “this paradise, this paradise, give it to me.” Exactly what this paradise is may take more than a few listens to unravel. But you won’t regret a moment of discovering.