There ought to be a law that says if you successfully make a 20-year career out of writing, recording and releasing thoughtful and catchy folk-pop songs on the acoustic guitar, you should be required to record and release an album of songs written using mostly synthesizers.
That seems to be the basic idea behind veteran singer-songwriter Josh Rouse’s new album Love in the Modern Age. It’s not perfect. It’s not really revelatory. But the guy realized after two decades of making solid folk-pop albums that he ought to put the guitar down for a bit and try something new.
Rouse cites The Smiths and The Cure and The Blue Nile as influences, and you can hear little bits of each throughout Love in the Modern Age: in the airless echo of opening track “Salton Sea,” the glassy keyboards of “Ordinary People, Ordinary Lives” and the variegated synths of “Tropic Moon.” Most of Rouse’s ‘80s excursions are both tasteful and appropriate for his voice and style. He only reaches too far on “Businessman,” a jet-setting fantasy that feels more like pastiche than Rouse burrowing his way into a particular aesthetic.
By contrast, the album ends with a string of songs that convincingly marry Rouse’s six-stringed roots with his new plugged-in toys. On “Tropic Moon,” he threads an easygoing earworm melody around the aforementioned synths, before adding a warm acoustic guitar and a beautiful bridge into the mix. The result is intoxicating in an un-bummed-out Beck’s Sea Change sort of way.
Similarly, “I’m Your Man” pairs a simple guitar chord progression with lush backing vocals and glowing keyboard tones and ends up feeling very Wilco-ish. “Hugs and Kisses” overcomes a slightly awkward vocal melody with some chill vibes and video-game bloops. And closing track “There Was A Time” is probably the most traditionally Rouse-ian song on the album, even with Rouse channelling Leonard Cohen’s raspy baritone.
That baritone also surfaces in Love in the Modern Age’s title track, where Rouse brings this whole project together under one roof. Processed piano, pulsating synths, mechanized vocals, buzzy bass lines and even a heartfelt saxophone solo swirl around him as he sings:
Tell me, is it all just in vain?
I know I’ve changed in the modern age.
Change is good, but it’s not easy. Kudos to Josh Rouse for recognizing the need. But it should be noted that Love in the Modern Age wouldn’t work if it were all synths and no songs. Not to worry; Rouse has the songs. His knack for setting a simple feeling to a breezy melody shines through again and again.