Rarely has dance floor euphoria hurt as much as it does on Claire George’s debut album The Land Beyond the Light. Sure, the record’s woozy atmospherics and unhurried tempo recall something closer to Robyn’s “Honey” or the lighter side of Thom Yorke’s solo discography, but it’s not hard to imagine some hazy dance floor with pink and blue lights shining through the thick fog. There’s more than a hint of melancholy in the music itself, but the driving and morose minor key piano chords frequently get obscured by the record’s steady percussion keeping things moving along. It is dance music, after all.
Dig deeper and you’ll find a collection of songs crying out from the lowest of lows, heartbroken and in mourning. But instead of wallowing in that despair, the L.A.-based artist utilizes dance beats and synths to propel her voice skyward in hopes that she’ll find some sort of catharsis in the process.
When writing The Land Beyond the Light, George was dealing with two life-changing events at once—a breakup and the death of a friend to substance abuse. And because grief is multifaceted and complex, that pain gets conflated here: It’s not possible to suss out which songs correspond to which feelings of despair. But that’s not the point, neither for the listener nor George herself.
To turn that pain into something constructive is an achievement in and of itself. To transform it into nine thrilling and gorgeous pop tracks is a miracle.
It’s obviously hard for George to stay positive throughout The Land Beyond the Light, but she tries her hardest. Take “I Promise,” the second single off the record. Propelled by distant, icy synths and a driving beat, George reaches out her hand to help however she can, a heroic gesture in the darkest of moments. “And when I promise, I promise to help you out / And when I follow, I follow so you won’t fall down,” she sings, her voice climbing higher than perhaps anywhere else on the record. She turns those words of affirmation into an incredibly catchy pop song, one of the few moments of positivity in the face of extreme heartache. “When it falls apart, you feel at fault somehow / You think you’ve lost your way, head fills with doubt / Well come on take my hand, I’ll help you out / I swear I’ll pull you up, I’ll never let you down,” she sings.
George’s instinct to help as best she can takes a major toll on her, as basically every other song on the album alludes to. “Did you see me dripping wet on the kitchen floor? / Tears streaming, but you walk right through me, am I just a ghost? / Did you hear me in the deep end screaming ‘cause I couldn’t float? / You stare me down, you drown me out, well I should have known,” she croons over bouncy synths on the upbeat, Cut Copy-esque album opener “You Don’t Feel the Same.” Elsewhere, she bluntly addresses the toll of witnessing her friend’s substance abuse on “Pink Elephants,” repeating “Lost you to the high, lost you to the habit” as heavy bass and percussion threaten to swallow her whole.
George is most effective the more personal she gets, particularly when she’s describing the chilling absence of her ex-lover and friend. “I see you there on the corner / I know it’s just a memory / But I cannot stare any longer / ‘Cause you’re no longer looking back at me,” she sings on “Medellín,” a midtempo indie-rock track that recalls Soccer Mommy or Jay Som more than Robyn or Carly Rae Jepsen, the first in a run of slowed-down ballads.
“Northern Lights,” perhaps The Land Beyond the Light’s highlight, hits the hardest. Her voice akin to Lana Del Rey’s falsetto singing over a beat that brings to mind Radiohead’s “Separator,” she remembers kisses in “the basement of your parents’ house,” “videos of you dancing with your best friend’s mom” and her ex holding her close in the rain during a panic attack. But now those memories flicker “like the northern lights,” flitting in and out of her brain at random, beautiful yet ephemeral. “You were so far gone, hardly recognized you / And now that you’re gone, well I see you all the time,” she croons in the album’s most emotional moment, later adding, “I’d give anything to turn back time / Begin again before my life without you.”
Tempo-wise, things pick up for The Land Beyond the Light’s final trio of songs, even if George’s hurt is still very much front and center. On top of a wistful synth line, George’s voice feels distant and processed on “Islands” when she sings, “Trying to sleep tortures me, but the hardest part is / Waking from a dream knowing you’re not there in the morning.” Over an early ’90s-esque hip-hop beat with woozy synth layered on top, George cuts deep on album closer “Particles in Motion,” detailing the very real events in the aftermath of such a painful loss: “Quiet on your mother’s birthday / And all the promises I can’t make / Like saying it’ll all be okay / When every day’s the same hopeless heartbreak.” Somehow it’s one of the more danceable moments on the record.
On a record chock-full of little scenes describing George’s grief in very real terms, she allows herself one song, “Bag of Peaches,” to go back to the beginning when she was deeply in love, yearning for her partner: “Your love makes me crazy / I just can’t let go.” Musically, “Bag of Peaches” is an extreme outlier here: It’s essentially a Tennis single, bouncy, bright and, dare I say, happy. It’s a fun love song recalling a time when things were much more simple, when picnics on the campus lawn could inspire true feelings of love. On an album filled with such intense and very human misery, a track like “Bag of Peaches” comes as a major relief. But that happiness is obviously fleeting, as the aforementioned “Particles in Motion,” when she sings, “I lost a line in my verses,” is right on deck.
The Land Beyond the Light is a touching tribute to those she’s lost both metaphorically and physically. But it also represents a major step up for George, who had her hand in the writing and production of every song on the record. The Land Beyond the Light showcases her abilities well beyond her Purity Ring-indebted 2018 EP Bodies of Water, which showed a lot of promise that is completely realized three years later on her debut album.
The Land Beyond the Light is a triumph, the culmination of an artist somehow, some way channeling her intense personal despair into something beautiful. The record is full of the sort of emotional catharsis you see elsewhere among contemporary indie rock singer/songwriters, but rarely seen in dance music. The Land Beyond the Light realizes that while you can’t fully dance away the pain, it’ll help you get through it, one woozy synth line at a time.
Steven Edelstone is the former album reviews editor at Paste and has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and more. All he wants is to get a shot and beer combo once this all blows over. You can follow him on Twitter.