Diamond Jubilee is Cindy Lee’s Bittersweet Magnum Opus

Patrick Flegel’s new double-album, available only on YouTube and GeoCities, sounds like it’s coming from the other room, if not another gauzy galaxy.

Music Reviews Cindy Lee
Diamond Jubilee is Cindy Lee’s Bittersweet Magnum Opus

If there’s anything the grande dame divas of yore who initially inspired Durham-via-Toronto musician Patrick Flegel would have appreciated about their lo-fi, “confrontation pop” drag performance project Cindy Lee—specifically its seventh full-length project under the moniker, Diamond Jubilee—it’s their urge to sprawl, to take up time and space. Despite the fact that Flegel has unloaded an embarrassment of riches in the 32-track double album, the divas would appreciate the remove with which they do it as well. Mystery is a luxury in the social media age, as many people hip to the album’s release pointed out when they learned the record would only be available on YouTube or for purchase through early-internet server GeoCities, shutting the streamers out completely.

I point all of this out to say, given the current state of music production and consumption, it’s a miracle Diamond Jubilee has even reached as many ears as it has—and it’s mainly due to the enthusiasm of a small-but-loyal fanbase who have done the work picking up whatever breadcrumbs Flegel has dutifully left behind over the years. These are the people who knew that working title Diamond Jubilee was first mentioned in an early 2020 interview, and that in Flegel’s most recent interview, they noted, “I just wanna purge a bunch of this stuff that I’ve got, which is a lot of material…That’d be the dream, [to] do a double-record.” Those who have stood at attention to alert the rest of us have made Diamond Jubilee indie music’s most closely guarded hidden gem overnight.

The Cindy Lee backstory, for reasons I’ve outlined above, can be difficult to untangle for those of us who have only enjoyed a few songs in passing or others who have never encountered the work at all. Following the early-2010s split of Jagjaguwar-signed band Women, of which Flegel was a member and had set apart with their inventive guitar chops, there have been six Cindy Lee albums—but in terms of availability, these are not all created equal. For example, their 2020 album What’s Tonight to Eternity received a pretty major press push and a slew of rave reviews, only for Flegel to turn around and release their follow-up full-length, Cat Nine O’ Tails, as a limited independent release a few months later (it’s still not readily available anywhere).

In a music landscape where writers like me usually receive (extremely helpful) press kits outlining the contours of an artist’s months-long album rollout, there was something thrilling about resorting to the Cindy Lee subreddit (a great resource, 285 members strong) and having to dig through a million clips of Flegel performing as Cindy Lee in years past, lovingly compiled by those willing to unearth what Flegel buries for them. There’s an element of discovery that I remember from first researching artists I love when I was much younger—and the rush of the payoff when the thing you’re digging for turns out to be something like Diamond Jubilee.

If this is the final project to be released under the Cindy Lee name, as Flegel has hinted it might be (“THIS WILL BE CINDY’S LAST AMERICAN TOUR,” the neon writing above tour dates on GeoCities reads. “A KLASSIK POWER VANITY TRIP SITUATION. SHE WILL BE RUNNING IT HOT AND KEEPING IT L-I-T-E.”), Diamond Jubilee has all the hallmarks of a fitting swan song. It is easily the densest, most rewarding body of work they have released to date—a staggering collection of psychedelic pop songs that can be difficult to tackle head on, if only due to the sheer quantity and quality of the work. It’s the type of double-album that you’re forced to pause after a digital “side” finishes, simply because of how little Falgel—who recorded almost all of the parts on the album, with some help only from Steven Lind of fellow Canadian band and past Cindy Lee collaborators Freak Heat Waves—lets their foot off the gas. To a certain extent, the worthiness of a double-album can be determined by the number of cuts you could imagine making if you were assigned a co-producer gig, and I have yet to listen to Diamond Jubilee with the sense that I needed scissors at the ready. Its grandiosity is its charm, feeling like an expansive, cohesive soundscape to be enveloped by rather than a chore to sit through. To call it an “opus” does not feel like a stretch.

If a project like What’s Tonight to Eternity had a knack for blending aggressive noise-rock sounds and production moves with blissful melodicism of the classic pop era, all inspired by the complicated life and legacy of Karen Carpenter, Diamond Jubilee makes very few attempts to so fully immerse itself in the shadows. If the searing, abrupt blasts of guitar on past releases acted as a warning—a reminder to not lose yourself in the nostalgic glow of each song’s wistful core—here they feel exuberant in their urge to interrupt. A lilting, Supremes-like intro will be confronted by bright, aggressive stabs of shredding, but it’s celebratory—the sound of fireworks shooting off the parade float, complementary to whatever it’s playing up against.

Maybe this lack of overt darkness returns to the idea of a muse. If someone like Carpenter, Patsy Cline or Faye Dunaway provided inspiration for the Cindy Lee persona and mode of performance in the past, this album evokes those standing in their shadow—the hollow, haunted quality of their contemporaries long forgotten. My first points of comparison, really, were the leaders of unknown groups brought to light on Numero Group compilations, especially with collection Basement Beehive: The Girl Group Underground and those which make up the ongoing Eccentric Soul series. These feature tracks most likely recorded for very little money in middle-of-nowhere, USA circa-1965, minimal by necessity and haunting as a result. Of course, the material’s spareness only serves it as we rediscover it now, turning these one-off singles into lonely transmissions that sound like they’ve been broadcast from another planet. Even when Diamond Jubilee beefs up its production, looking to construct its own Wall of Sound out of fuzz pedals, that same haunting DIY quality holds true. In a sea of dreamy synths play-acting as string orchestras and frothy pop harmonies, there is a sense of melancholy that doesn’t need to be emphasized or explained.

Above all, it’s a breakup album—whether it’s the ending of a romantic relationship or just a goodbye to a facet of Flagel they’ve expressed through this project, we don’t know for sure. It doesn’t matter, either: Even the most well-trodden lyrical cliches on display here work because they’re encased in such a strange, emotive musical context. In that blend of expressive jubilation and the dark corners that hide within it, there are moments that continue to surprise even a few listens in. The first arrives with the rolling, picked intro of the title track—punctuated by what sound like groaning cello lines—which then fades out only to explode into a sampled symphony orchestra giving way into the fuzzy glam-rock stomp of “Glitz.”

Throughout the following two hours of music, there are moments where instrumentation will be either recorded or manipulated to sound like it’s coming from the other room, if not another gauzy galaxy, only for the sound quality to change suddenly, jutting out at you. “If You Hear Me Crying” on the second “disc” does this beautifully, shifting from sunshine pop bounce to what sound like muted, sarangi-accompanied passages, all bulldozed by a day-glo guitar break in a matter of a minute. This melding of influences and styles produces some of the record’s most daring turns—notably where “Flesh and Blood”’s percussive intro throbs until a dam breaks into sustained synth textures, a bass-driven groove and wordless backing vocals. Only adding to the shambolic charm, the song notably speeds up or slows down at certain points, as if it’s careening on railroad tracks, propelling itself into an outro of more pronounced cymbal crashes and even more crunchy, psychedelic shredding.

This is followed by the almost medieval solemnity interlude of “Le Machiniste Fantome” and the gorgeous, airy sunshine pop of “Kingdom Come,” the latter of which feels like a bittersweet kiss goodbye as the sun sets and the hero rides away, leaving the door cracked for whoever’s gone away to come riding back someday, sometime: “I miss you, dear friend / I heard your music playing far away / I’ll cross my fingers for another day / Til the kingdom come / Don’t tell me it’s the end / I only want to see your face again.” Elsewhere, “GAYBLEVISION” rides the wave of frenetic disco pulse that crackles under the distortion. A streak of repetitive, groove-driven songs continues with the hypnotic “Dracula” and the droning dark psychedelia of “Lockstepp.”

On paper, it sounds chaotic—an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to cramming in as many styles and musical tricks as it can manage, leaving you to cherry-pick according to your own preferences. In practice, it feels like something complete: a sonic exploration of at least the last 70 years of popular and alternative music synthesized into one bizarre package. I would argue it’s the most accessible Cindy Lee project to date, even as it seems to intentionally set out to confound with its overflow. That very overflow contains the larger-than-life Hollywood starlets that Cindy was modeled after—their agonies and their complexities, rarely examined with care when they were around to hear about it.

When eerie, wordless vocalizations come in following the chorus of “Dont Tell Me I’m Wrong” (“Without you close to me / All I’ve got’s this song / And this melody”), it opens up a space for streaks of mascara running down a monochromatic face. Similarly, the more full-bodied drowse of “Government Cheque” feels like a ‘70s soul slow jam that shocks itself into its wah-wah-laden, cinematic close—ending with just a few seconds of a monastic choir’s hum, sounding like the end-times between guitar breaks. It sounds like those figures are re-animated through Flegel’s arrangement, glorious in their excess.

Diamond Jubilee will overwhelm you, there’s no getting around that. The sheer volume of what Flegel has created willfully takes up space, and it’s expected that the listener will have to wrestle with something of this scope, even as they’re wowed by what they’re hearing. But again, there’s something thrilling now about that type of challenge, when so much is so easily digestible. Even if the Cindy Lee project doesn’t exist in its current form by the time this upcoming tour is over, it won’t really matter—their masterwork, beamed down from another world, will always feel out of time and, therefore, feel at home in any given moment. The album’s sprawl has no beginning and no end. It’s just a question of when or where you’re ready to join it.

Elise Soutar is a New York-born-and-based music and culture writer.

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