Once indie music transitioned from a political definition ("artist on an independent label") to a genre, we were faced with a vexing question: What does indie sound like? The sound has always been hard to define. I used to think of it as the underside of pop music, meaning, highly specific, tailored and niche. My conception of indie tore at pop conventions like verse-chorus structure, or choruses at all. It privileged words over hooks, or at least, its hooks were targeted toward esoteric tastes.
But that definition leaves out the wonderful body of indie pop, and bands like Haim, Lana Del Rey and Lorde that tear at the genre walls build with their debris. Eventually, you could only say without much satisfaction: I know it when I hear it. In the late 00s/early 10s , the genre as a whole took a turn for retrophilia: everything became an homage to the history of guitar music. Bands like The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, The War on Drugs and Kurt Vile did more than take inspiration from the past, they treated it as a genre and added to its canon. It was great, but we were soon lost in it. Today, it's harder to find a new, buzzed-about band that doesn't take several moves from the 70s, 80s, or 90s. Sometimes, it's hard to say whether something is excellent or just does an excellent job aping excellent predecessors.
The cutting edge of music now belongs to pop and hip hop. These are genres where the top artists are thinking, "What's a sound we haven't used before?" or "What's a flow no one else has?" Modern indie merely asks, "What is pop not doing?" and maybe that's why we don't have rock stars anymore.
Rostam Batmanglij is an artist that exists in the genre-less utopia. Originally a key member of genre kings Vampire Weekend, he's been asked to produce and add his fingerprints to songs by Frank Ocean, Solange, Ra Ra Riot and Hamilton Leithauser. His sound is warm, pulls from a variety of genres, and incorporates just as many acoustic instruments as electronic synths. If indie is allowed to claim him, he is one of the best still burning a new path. At its best, it sounds like what indie music was supposed to turn into before we hitched our ride to a series of 70s throwbacks.
Last year, he debuted Half Light, his first full length album. The cover art is perfect: Rostam in modern Persian calligraphy captioning a pink and blue pixelated close up. It is what you hope synesthetes see over the course of the album. Like the cover, the songs are simultaneously modern and retro: intricate harpsichord riffs invoke Renaissance music, but when they underline military drums and Rostam's anthemic, impassioned lone-voice singing, it belongs to another time entirely.
If you look at the back of the book and get the answers on Genius, you'll find Rostam thinking about these songs in terms of genre and time. "This is my 70s song," he might say. While that may be his starting point, his end result is far from that conventional. "Bike Dream," the song's purest single, draws on all the possibilities of noise. Synths and drums are fuzzy and lo-fi, as if played out blown out speakers, but the ambient glimmer is crisp and clear. Rostam's own voice is multi-tracked to give it texture, but flat, so as not to give it an edge over the crowded soundscape he's building.
Rostam's singing voice is an underrated part of what makes his music so interesting and enjoyable. Sometimes he sings like someone perpetually on the edge of a sneeze. His words are nasally, and he moves off of words quickly, without full enunciation. If he had a conventional pop singer's voice, it wouldn't have synergy with the multi-headed dragon that makes up his music. He can sing that way because the drums are plastic and sound like they're in another room; he can sing that way because the bass has been replaced by a string quartet. All great indie has unconventional singing, even in some small way, and that's a huge part of what gives indie music its unique fingerprint. It's the secret passageway to authenticity, which allows fans to take a kind of ownership of the music in the privacy of their hearts.
"Gwan" uses less than "Bike Dream," settling on a relatively traditional mesh of strings, a grand piano and some light percussion. Mixed to sound like he's performing in a cavern, this might qualify as a "quiet" song on someone else's album, were it not for the workout he puts the violinists through. Rostam is not content to simply let the take long draws on key notes, but to show off and oscillate constantly throughout the song. It becomes an almost audacious exercise in making beautiful music; maximalist in the way it blows out beauty, despite employing fewer instruments.
It is valuable and exciting to hear what his cocktail of mixed sounds can do with the sensibilities of a Frank Ocean or Hamilton Leithauser. But the auteur voice is always more exciting and alive with possibility. The rhythm section alone varies wildly -- the heavy hollow hand drums of "Wood" are worlds away from the relentless lo-fi thousand-stick sound of "Don't Let It Get To You" -- and it is hard to imagine such diversity existing on a collaborative album. It is hard to hear this coming from anyone else's voice.
I keep coming back to "Bike Dream," which is a song that could definitely be a radio single if it wanted to. It is infectious, joyful, and has a killer hook that implore you to sing along: "Two boys, one to kiss your neck and one to bring you breakfast, get you out of bed." It's also a production marvel: singing through different channels, different sound qualities, and wild melodies that I can't even imagine except in a dream. When you consider the lyrics express an anxious view of a complicated relationship, of grappling with two sides of a lover, it seems like an ill-fit for Top 40 pop radio. But that's wrong. It's pure, perfect pop. The overarching love of this sound, which flows and transmutes so effortlessly, is exactly what makes pop music stick. And maybe that possibility of mass appeal, despite subversive choices that undercut it, are what makes it exciting indie music. It stunts on all genres by showing how easily it can play in all of them.