The first thing you notice about the new HOMESHAKE album is that the guitars are gone. Where the lo-fi R&B producer/singer’s 2017 offering Fresh Air opened with a gently seductive solo, Helium, the fourth album by the former Mac DeMarco guitarist, starts with the sound of birdsong and a Juno 60 keyboard.
It’s more a paired-back, simpler version of the HOMESHAKE we’ve known until now but still unmistakable for anything else. At its core are the same dreamy keys and stoned falsetto and although Sagar made a point to record and mix the album on his own at home instead of in a studio as with his previous four records, its ambitions feel broadly the same. Helium is an album to listen to while lying around on the couch and an album to soundtrack all the nice things that one can experience while lying on said couch; books, weed, maybe some mild hallucinogens. Second track “Anything At All” in particular feels apt for revelling in laziness, its lyrics declaring “I don’t even care right now” and “find me something else to do.”
Not that’s necessarily a bad thing. Sagar himself has stated that Helium is inspired in part by ambient electronic music, a genre that exists to soundtrack the everyday. In an age where our every action has an algorithmically generated playlist to accompany it, there could be fertile ground – both artistically and commercially - for artists to compete with original albums already geared to a particular activity or mood.
Or maybe it’s that Segar is trying to use Helium as a way to flag this seemingly inevitable trend before it arrives. On Helium, as well as its predecessor, his lyrics are full of allusions to smartphones and social isolation. Just take skit/ interlude “Salu Says Hi” for example, a track, not even two minutes long, made from garbled voices saying “Hello?” over and over again until they dissolve into a shimmering synth. By providing an album primed for relaxation, Sagar is at once attempting to satirize the increasingly precision-targeted streaming world and using that satire to provide a half an hour or so of downtime to the listener. It’s a small act of protest in a culture that increasingly fetishes non-stop work; a soundtrack for not doing very much at all.
This isn’t new territory for the Montréal artist and when employed properly that slacker’s attitude can be liberating. However, on Helium, Sagar’s laid-back aesthetic feels half-baked as many times as it feels defiant. Hints of his songwriting talent are littered throughout but rarely come together to make something as good as tracks like “Call Me Up” or “Every Single Thing.” While it has a distinctive sound and cohesive feel, there’s little to bring the listener back to Helium once they’ve listened through it a couple of times.
In places, it feels as if Sagar knows that and has tried to keep the energy up by chopping the record up into super-short interludes and loops. Sadly though, it doesn’t work, and a lot of the time Helium feels more like a demo than a finished album, full of musical ideas that are over as soon as they’ve got going. While Sagar hasn’t totally sacrificed his groove at the temple of Eno, there are moments on Helium where it becomes all too easy to tune out.
In many ways, Helium is an attempt at purification rather than evolution. The best tracks on the record are either obsessively crafted slices of lo-fi purity or stripped back R&B crooners built of groove and Sagar’s lonely falsetto. Penultimate track “Couch Cushion” for example is a two-minute meditation on slackerdom made up of white noise and a just handful of notes. Meanwhile “Nothing Could Be Better” is a slow jam that swoons with doe-eyed lyrics. You can almost picture Sagar performing it at prom, all sparkling suit and self-awareness. “All Night Long” is the only real deviation from the album’s core sound, opening and defined by a gothic piano riff so chilling it could summon Three 6ix Mafia. Had Sagar gifted a few more of the tracks on Helium with such a singular refrain, it may have prevented his ambient influences from dominating the album.
In trying to distill HOMESHAKE’s sound, all too often the producer ends up reducing it and removing the same elements that gave his earlier work life. It’s a theme echoed in the album’s title. Just as its namesake is lighter than air, Helium is more immaterial than its predecessors. While there are moments of intrigue and gentle grooves aplenty, all too often the songs on Helium float by like a pleasant breeze.