The first of ten favorite 2011 albums — Active Child’s ‘You Are All I See’

Active Child, You Are All I See

And sometimes I feel like I can live inside shimmering harp sonics and falsetto vocals forever.

You Are All I See might, in the end, be the one album of the year that became a regular comfort album for me, something that I put on when I was at a bit of a loss and just wanted to hear something that I liked, but also was something new. So there’s that when it comes to its appeal, but why like it so much to begin with? The reasons go on.

The first time I saw Pat Grossi perform under his chosen moniker was a year and some months ago when School of Seven Bells came through town. Active Child was opening and I knew nothing aside from the name but after a set where he calmly sat, occasionally with a friend backing him up, and delivered one stellar song after another, electronic textures and careful beats and more all supporting his frankly amazing voice, I pretty much went “GUH” and sought him out later where he was selling T-shirts. I picked up one, of course — anyone who knows me knows my wardrobe is kinda mostly band shirts to start with — and talked about how hearing his music made me think of acts like Alphaville and a-ha. Turned out that Grossi was a massive fan of them as well, so it was kinda nice knowing I wasn’t completely hearing things.

I flat out called You Are All I See as one of the year’s best when it came out, so if you want the capsule review take on it from me, follow the link. But to extrapolate on it a bit — that sense of it not actually being an eighties revival is key to its success, it’s just that little out of sync with such a presumed location, sonically and temporally. It couldn’t be anything but something right now simply because it feels like a past fractured and reworked, elements reassembled in a way that are never quite smoothly flowing but are nonetheless put together without any jagged edges. It’s not a huge pop album as such but acts it can be, amping up the midsection of something like “Ancient Eye” while riding a steady, crunch-laden electronic pulse. If anything all the various tensions, musical, vocal, lyrical, throughout (perhaps most especially and obviously on “Playing House”) show it’s an r’n’b album in the modern sense. But where artists like Ne-Yo show the power of contemplation, retrospection and fragility in the context of the mainstream, Active Child is in comparison more cloistered, withdrawn rather than engaging, something you approach slowly not merely because it could break, but because it’s a little alien somehow. Grossi’s voice balances between being divorced from the flesh and just that connected enough still, a weeping angel in truth.

“High Priestess” and “Way Too Fast” aren’t necessarily my favorites from the album but do have my favorite moments, and both lie in the way that they work with introductions. For all the talk about melodrama and what seem to be unconnected-from-reality sonics, on the first song there’s a sudden bluntness in the opening lyrics: “What you gonna do when you get back home? Get a job? Pull your weight now?” It’s not the whole song, but it’s a rhetorical question that takes the song from abstract contemplation into a sudden situating of reality, all the more of interest for being something that can be filled in by the listener as chosen — especially in a time and place like today, when the opportunities aren’t as plentiful as they could be. When one of the later lyrics runs “What you gonna do when you get out of jail?,” the contrast between that and the ‘high priestess’ gets drawn a little more sharply, causing a little more disorientation as it goes. The suggestiveness of that relationship between the abject figure and the focus of celebration is — just — poised enough, something where it almost invites a listener to project suppositions onto it that could go any number of directions.

Then there’s “Way Too Fast,” how it begins with the softest of keyboard notes, a very slow, echoed beat and, soon thereafter, his calm voice. It would seem to be something out of place given the lyrical subject — stillness and slow motion rather than acceleration is the sense of things — but when he returns to the phrase “way too fast” a second time, the addition of chorused, distorted backing vocals pulls everything down swiftly, like a sudden weight flung into the arms of a drowning victim. As it turns out, the song isn’t about the feeling but the aftereffects, and the sense of floating over and through an emptied landscape, punctuated with moments of resonance and action only to be suffused once more into the slow progression, Grossi’s wordless notes a circular filigree. A final keyboard line and buried, whispered/sung repetitions of the title phrase underscores that sense of not apocalypse now but apocalypse revisited, picking a barely healed scab while hidden behind the pose of an electronic ghost.

But over and above all else, that voice. “Ooo I’m trying to find you/Ooo I’m trying to reach you girl” is the kind of line that is obvious simplicity itself, but as with anything cliche, it can depend on the performer — and Grossi sells it. It is enough, more than enough.

Purchase You Are All I See via iTunes and Amazon.