“People are complicated, and I am no exception!” This was the crux of multi-instrumentalist Haley McCallum’s statement in regards to her latest album, Pleasureland—an expectation-bucking, all-instrumental release she felt moved to do after the success of 2016’s Impossible Dream. A composer, producer, writer, guitarist, keyboard player, pianist, teacher, and mother, McCallum—formerly known to the music world as Haley Bonar—decided to shine a light on other aspects of her artistry, leaving the power-pop and barbed, lyrical observations she has become known for, behind.
Stark, melodic, layered, and emotion-filled, Pleasureland feels like a step-out of time—a meditation—a moment taken for oneself to reflect. As you listen to the inherent beauty of her piano-based compositions, your own thoughts and interior world feel reflected back at you as you drift from track to track. “Credit Forever Part 1” serves as a brief intro, easing you into the digital-meets-organic soundscape McCallum has created—as computer glitch noises are molded in the style of the most cinematic-sounding strings.
“Give Yourself Away,” continues this mix, the retro-future synths mingling with her elegant piano playing in a way the most natural of ways—romantic, spacey, and restless. “Syrup” introduces guitar to the mix, the fuzzy distortion and bleeding edges evoking memory, nostalgia, and a physical and mental drift. “Credit Forever Part 2,” is graceful and tumbling, the music blossoms and flourishes in a way that feels like triumph, before distortion and reverb bring it back down to Earth.
Even in Pleasureland’s most idyllic moments, a layer of subconscious unease remains—the one exception being the drop-dead gorgeous “Next Time (For C)” which is beauty and romanticism and its finest. Trickling, agile piano—reminiscent of the most poignant works of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou—mixes with strings and air for the most romantic, lilting, and light moment of the album.
The variety continues with the excellent “Pig Latin,” her piano accompanied by the fuzzy, breathy saxophone of Mike Lewis (Bon Iver, Happy Apple). In its tone and blueness, the song recalls moody, mid-century jazz, while still managing to sound completely contemporary. Not an easy feat, especially considering the song was tracked in McCallum’s bedroom. “Infinite Pleasure Part 2” is a late standout, the distorted, western desert guitar bringing some virile energy back for the tail-end of the album—the one instrument managing to sound expansive and released—like the desert landscape itself.
Pleasureland is an unexpected turn for McCallum, but an interesting exercise in autonomy and expectations. The result is a slight 27 minutes that manages to contain worlds—of emotion, texture, and feeling. No words needed.
Hear Haley Bonar’s 2013 Daytrotter Session below: