It took three years for Dexter Tortoriello, better known as Dawn Golden, to release his debut album, Still Life. The Chicago local spent the years fine-tuning (ahem, delaying) the album despite fervid anticipation after releasing his beautifully morose Blacks EP in 2012.
Dawn Golden being on Mad Decent’s label can come as a surprise given how different his music is compared to other artists, but don’t let it deter you. Still Life is an emotionally heavy album befit with carefully layered synths, deliberate drum patterns and heavy-handed vocal reverb… to a point. And that point comes all-too soon.
Tortoriello’s vocal reverb is his signature sound, even on his most recent collaboration with Ryan Hemsworth. On most of Still Life, the echoing vocal distortion compliments the melancholic moodscapes he paints for us, like in “All I Want.” It tries calling back to his Blacks roots, brimming with melancholic memories and the losses in life without love (which seems to be Still Life’s theme). For the first ~2 minutes he builds the song’s melody with piano, bass synths, and vocal distortions before bringing the listener’s into a sweeping crescendo to hit a climax of longing. While it should work given the accelerated drums and clashing of instruments, there’s still a gaping hole in it – the starch lack of sincerity.
This actually remains the case in all of Still Life the more you listen to it – where his critically acclaimed Blacks was the embodiment of heartbreak, depression, and the unwillingness of life, Still Life falls heavily short of that sentiment. It tries too hard to break into a chasm of raw emotion and lamely echoes the sounds and vibes of his previous work. Take the hook in “Swing” – “Darkness keeps me alone / and darkness eats away at the place that we call our home.”
Are you fucking kidding me?
It’s beyond a departure from what Dawn Golden used to be – he’s just heavily shoving it in our faces now. The delicate strings being pulled on our hearts are gone and he’s just yanking us around for most of the album.
That said, there is a saving grace thanks to his title track, “Still Life.” It was the major single release before his album dropped which made perfect sense because it’s legitimately a superbly stunning song. While it’s the closest Tortoriello’s ever taken us into pop song category, that’s exactly what “Still Life” gives us. Rippling synths, layered simply over one another letting it gently take us through nostalgic memories and paintings of lost dreams. It’s evocative with sharp lyricism and rings with true sincerity and understanding. “Still Life” was the clear gladiator in the room, outshining the rest of his songs by a factor of over 9000.
There were many throwaway songs the more I listened to the album which only fueled my frustration with how long he took to release it. There’s nothing outstandingly new with Still Life despite his reminding us he is a talented musician that knows how to cater to a specific sound. Three years is a lot of build-up and I was irked listening to an album that was more of the same. I really wanted to see him branch out of Blacks and give us something challenging and ground shaking. Hopefully his post-Hemsworth work will ring in some new ideas.
Some stand-out tracks include “Still Life,” “Discoloration,” and “I Won’t Bend.”
Rupa Jogani liked Dawn Golden’s old work more than Still Life. She’s still grumbling and on Twitter: @r_jogani