Over the course of Half Waif’s discography, Nandi Rose’s music has expanded from bucolic soundscapes into icier portraits. On 2014’s KOTEKAN and 2016’s Probable Depths, Rose’s strings, pianos and powerful mezzo-soprano provided an appropriately plaintive background for her ruminations on distance and personal growth. For 2017’s boxy form/a EP and 2018’s grief-stricken Lavender, she embraced synths that resembled icicles falling onto a patio and shattering—an element previously scattered, but not placed front and center, throughout her work—in service of songs as thoughtfully composed as they were towering and immediate.
Rose’s Lavender follow-up The Caretaker is smaller in scale. The album often resembles a reversion to her sparser early work and away from the cavernous jolts of her more recent output. As Rose embraces her craft’s most hermit-like aspects, she consolidates her longtime fascinations with change and disconnectedness into grim portraits of whom she becomes when she doesn’t maintain her closest relationships and properly tend to (the ever-marketable art of) self-care.
Understandably, The Caretaker’s stories are often not pretty sights, even if the music always is. On “Blinking Light,” a synth-pop ballad that flows like a gentle stream, Rose describes circling the drain and leaving texts unread, and though the image of a neglectful Rose is bleak, the song’s slow glide toward her belting away her agony is equally somber and invigorating. Throughout “In August,” she looks back despondently on the fallout of a once-strong companionship: “I have lost your friendship / What does that say about me?” As pillowy synths burst into a mournful geyser of sound, the track takes on a rejuvenating air.
As on form/a and Lavender, Rose’s reflections strike their hardest when her synth lines sound especially unorthodox or bombastic. The arpeggios outlining “Siren,” a song whose subject Rose seeks to draw close especially when she’s creatively depleted (“When I get uninspired / I’m gonna write you into my song”), feel plucked from form/a’s outtake pile, though the final minute’s key change is a newer (and exciting) risk for her. Early highlight “My Best Self,” a tale of several characters trying but failing to be who they want to be, opens with ominous, inviting synth gurgling that feels untethered to any rhythm. It’s as unexpected and striking as the artificially down-tuned vocals that soon appear, and as these voice effects fade while the verses segue into the choruses, the impact is as tender as it is hair-raising.
Moments this lively are less frequent during The Caretaker’s home stretch. Where Lavender pulsed with equal fervor on its piano ballads and punching synth-pop tracks, The Caretaker’s final few songs—all piano ballads—prove somewhat disengaging when clustered together. Since Rose’s voice only hits its sky-highest towards the end of “Brace,” it’s easy to tune out before the climax. The two tracks that follow, “Generation” and “Window Place,” come off as nondescript in the album’s sequencing. It’s a shame—taken alone after a few uninterrupted listens of the album, these two songs are as uplifting, though sorrowful, as their tales of Rose finally forgoing the habits behind the strained relationships she chronicles throughout The Caretaker.
“Halogen 2,” the song most dissimilar to the rest of The Caretaker’s side two, is the album’s most memorable. It immediately entices with programmed bass hits and never lets up throughout its far too brief, flash-in-the-pan runtime. By the time its glorious, harmony-infused final chorus arrives, Rose is at her most valiant. “Don’t misunderstand, I do what I must!” she clamors, and it’s a welcome reminder that, even when she operates on a smaller-scale in processing her flaws, her conviction remains enthralling.
Revisit Half Waif’s 2018 Paste session: