On the artwork for Melbourne electropop act Kllo’s debut album Backwater, it’s not quite clear what the duo’s two members—cousins Chloe Kaul and Simon Lam—are doing and how they’re feeling. Are their eyes closed, or are they remorsefully staring at the ground? This picture of Kllo, though simple, is mysterious, intriguing and artful. It’s an appropriate representation of Backwater: Kllo’s songs, which build invigorating intimacy via Kaul’s whispery, soulful vocals and the duo’s solemn, haunting beats, are enveloping enigmas that lend themselves as equally to soft dances as to soul-searching.
If Kllo’s 2016 sophomore EP Well Worn was an enjoyable yet tentative dip into the pool of electrosoul, Backwater is a far more streamlined, consistent, impactful affair. A song like “On My Name” from Well Worn may have left more to be desired, a thorough grip somewhat tough to find in its lush, soft production; by contrast, Backwater opener “Downfall” bursts with an infectious vocal sample and a consistent kick line that’s about as much of a hook as a programmed drumbeat could ever be. Kaul’s fragments of softly hummed lyrics swirl around Kllo’s soundscapes as though they’re chasing after something intangible, a quest made all the more fascinating by crests of synth quietly pulsing in and out of focus.
One of Kllo’s chief vehicles for achieving Backwater’s clandestine mood is how wispy and weightless Kaul allows her voice to be on these songs. Back-to-back highlights “Dissolve” and “By Your Side” feature some of her most understated and breathy singing to date, further layering Kllo’s already spooky, restrained beatwork with a further layer of mystery. She achieves this effect no matter what she’s saying: “Dissolve” is one of the most lyrically detailed songs on the album, whereas “By Your Side,” in classic Burial style, repeats the same 10 words (“want to be by your side again,” “call you up”).
Though a focused listen on Backwater’s lyrics indicates breakup themes, Kaul could sing complete nonsense sounds and gibberish in this voice and still impart the same melancholy and introspection. On a song like “Predicament,” it’s clear that Kaul is pleading “tell me I’m the one” with a lover, but it’s her voice, not her words, that more strongly fold into Kllo’s beautifully sculpted scaffolding, which fuses a fixation on ambient music with a love of deep house. Even on what might be the album’s most lucid vocal moment, “Too Fast,” hearing Kaul vividly hover on the word “rewind” just over halfway through imparts longing via her tone rather than with the exact word she’s singing.
Although there’s nothing explicitly wrong with Backwater, the consistency of Kllo’s approach to songcraft can sometimes make the album feel repetitive, though never quite like a drag; this effect is further exaggerated by the album’s above-average runtime. There’s no particular moment to which one can point and find a flaw; rather, it gets by on how greyscale, minimal, and tightly bound it is will begin to sound redundant even if, when truly, deeply analyzed, each track is vastly different. But maybe that’s the point: Backwater might just reel in listeners strongly enough that they take deep dives into each and every track individually. And even then, Kllo’s mystery remains intact.