Clarke Sondermann has earned himself a place as one of our favourite contemporary artists with his distinctive and complex pop music. In the guise of both The Washboard Abs and Pleasure Systems, Sondermann makes music that’s as unpredictable as it is painfully honest. His latest effort as Pleasure Systems, Terraform is an album that sees Sondermann expand his portfolio into dance music, a move that isn’t as drastic a leap as you might think.
The stylistic shift is clear from opener ‘Eden Vision’, an electronic pop song collaged from a short looped vocal clip, groovin’ guitar, subtle beats and a sort of angelic background ambience. But when Sondermann’s vocals arrive it’s clear this is still Pleasure Systems, their wistfulness providing a beguiling counterpoint to the dancey instrumentation.
I don’t believe in what I can’t see
your memory starts to recede
I don’t believe that spirits linger
there is no form
I can’t see you anymore
‘Heirloom’ sounds like Dan Deacon on downers, twinkling keys and weird vocal effects swirling around earnestly poetic lines like “my mom and dad remain conjoined by nothing more than not to be alone.” Indeed, the song reveals itself to be white hot with hurt, grief and pain both highly personal (“my fingertips are running through your alopecian hair,” Sondermann sings of experiencing his partner’s illness, “and this is home”), and more universal, namely the plight of the LGBTQ community at large, what Sondermann describes as “a legacy of fear and paranoia.” But at it’s heart this is still a love song, albeit one with the sugary veneer stripped away, a fact illustrated in the final line.
I cling to you
for in each other’s pain and grief
is where we feel at home
And this is how Terraform continues, the fun and experimental digitally-modulated pop a vehicle for exploring very human emotions. It’s a testament to Sondermann’s songwriting that even when buried beneath sampler loops and smothered in vocal effects, the messages feel achingly human. Much electronic dance music would fail to pass the Voigt Kampff test, keeping the listener at arm’s length due to its lack of personal centre, but the infectious rhythms and melodies Sondermann stitches together coalesce around an intimate and emotional core.
‘Idle’ seems to be disintegrating as it advances, pixels breaking away and whirling into the digital ether, while ‘Envelop’ sounds calm and chill, built on a smoothly spherical synth line, the verses punctuated with sample loops and subtle beats. The kaleidoscopic ‘Milk & Honey’ feels like playing an arcade platformer at double speed, and ‘Folded’ is all woozy flutter, its panoply of percussion adding an almost tropical lilt.
Perhaps the closest thing the album has to a typical Washboard Abs song, ‘Cautiously’ sees acoustic guitar bubbling up from the vocal samples. The song sounds soft and wistful, but it’s actually a clear-eyed look at the legacy of abuse, the perfect example of the Pleasure Systems combination of the pretty and the painful.
Which is going to be the legacy of Terraform, an album built on a solid emotional core that takes electronic dance music and lo-fi bedroom pop and sends them spinning in new directions. Penultimate track ‘See It Thru’ is wonderfully slick and streamlined, a great example of the poppier end of the Pleasure Systems spectrum, while finale ‘From the Ground’ frowns with an earnest direction, a love song that, just like the whole album, feels as vulnerable as it does powerful.
Terraform is out now and you can get it on cassette or download from the Pleasure Systems Bandcamp page.