When Taylor Swift stunned us all in August with the impressive single “Lover,” the title track from her latest album, many critics and music-minded folk compared the song to an unexpected source—Mazzy Star. Among them was journalist Marissa R. Moss, who tweeted, “Taylor Swift’s ‘Lover’ furthers my hypothesis that Mazzy Star continues to be one of the biggest influences on current music, fight me.”
There’s no real way to test that hypothesis, but Moss has a nice point. The charmingly romantic “Lover” sounds eerily similar to Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” sharing the song’s tempoed tambourine and plushy acoustics. Pop’s biggest star twisted the reverby gaze to her advantage, much like indie artists like Hatchie and Jay Som. Brooklyn act Cigarettes After Sex are also chasing after that shoegaze-y side of dream pop popularized by ’90s bands like Mazzy Star, but Swift ultimately executed it much better than them.
Tambourine is sparse on the band’s sophomore record Cry, but lack of jingle is the least of frontman Greg Gonzalez’s problems on this release. The band’s 2017 self-titled debut under the CAS moniker dipped into a darker strain of dream-pop to glorious, morbid effect: Cigarettes After Sex was a slow-burning success, full of heartbreaking sleepers and love songs for the end of the world, as euphoric and sensual as it was devastating and somber. It felt volatile while still maintaining a relatively steady sound and volume, ultimately achieving a mathematically perfect album for rainy-day listening. Hearing it in 2017 yielded the tingling feeling of discovering a favorite new artist, almost like a secret. However, the emotional and sonic depths Gonzalez achieved on the debut are nowhere to be found on Cry, a predictable—if repetitive—chapter two that comes across like one never-ending yawn.
But Cry isn’t a letdown solely for its sonic drudgery. The lyrics recall Gonzalez’s primary themes of both unescapable loneliness and the antsiness of new love, but it’s when he goes back to sex and lust that things turn a bit seedy. He yearns for a cringey pre-workout quickie on the desperate “Kiss It Off Me,” (“You beg for it in the morning again before you go to the gym”—yikes) and confuses physical attraction with romantic feelings on the relatable but boring “Heavenly,” still probably the best song on the record. “Touch” is very disjointed—Gonzalez bounces from an empty bedroom to a cocaine-dusted party to an emotionally unavailable partner’s couch so quick you’ll get whiplash, and it’s never really clear if desire or solitude is the reigning emotion. Very often throughout Cry, Gonzalez is watching a relationship wither, but when every song sounds the same, it’s a tough sell to stick around to watch the breakdown.
Gonzalez and his bandmates recorded much of the album on the Spanish island of Mallorca (perhaps in the “house by the ocean” he mentions in “Falling In Love,” one of the album’s breezy highlights) just a few weeks after their debut album arrived in 2017, and he said in the press materials the location had a direct effect on the music. Indeed, the highs on Cry would make a perfect soundtrack for a bonfire-lit beach hang and fit right in snuggled alongside tracks like “Fade Into You” on the playlist you’re crafting for a crush. But these songs never quite achieve the same soaring heights as those on the debut.
Cigarettes After Sex emerged as one of the most promising new acts of 2017, and that promise hasn’t gone anywhere—it’s just been tainted a tad by a mostly forgettable release. But despite the problems on Cry, the synthscapes are still pleasantly looming throughout, and the sleepy, sultry vibes we fell for on Cigarettes After Sex are still mostly in tact. Fans of that record’s sound might find some solace here, but it’s unclear how this effort would win over any new ones, particularly when Cry is essentially a worse retread of their debut. And as for ’90s-inspired acoustic dream-pop in 2019, I’d rather just listen to “Lover.”