Lael Neale’s music resides on the blurry fringes of indie pop, and that’s right where she likes it. Sure, she looks back fondly on her time spent immersed in LA’s artistic community—she told Aquarium Drunkard that, since returning to her native Virginia, she misses “being in a community of people doing the same things as me”—but her individualistic way of working and propensity for lo-fi experimentation eludes both categorization and the limelight, especially through the strict adherence to anachronistic recording techniques that defined her 2021 album Acquainted with Night—which was recorded entirely on cassette using a Suzuki Omnichord that Neale was gifted by a friend. Amid the sensory overload of L.A. living, she found sanctum in the retro synthesizer and how its celestial drones and music box-like tones carved out the space and tranquility she longed for.
Later in that Aquarium Drunkard interview, Neale elaborated on life since moving back to her family’s farm: “I walk every day and don’t see anybody and don’t hear anybody and it’s truly isolated and beautiful. I have so much freedom. I have time and it feels very abundant.” This abundance engenders Star Eaters Delight, an album that is more spread out, that is free to test new waters now that her priorities have shifted. On “I Am The River,” the lively lead single and lucid mission statement from her new record, Neale is effusive about her newfound space: “I pledge allegiance to tree and meadow/ I have no need to conquer or keep them.” It’s a light allusion to our obsession with ownership, but she doesn’t get too in the weeds here, instead taking her allegiance to nature even further with the line, “We are together/ I am the river,” as the Omnichord’s bright drone smiles in approval. Neale’s sense of clarity and joy manifests in the uncharacteristically upbeat tempo, the cheerful vocal hook and the rollicking guitar line—the sound of returning to nature.
With this additional space comes additional instruments: Mellotron, guitar, organ, piano, drum machine, and percussion join the talismanic Omnichord; and, apparently, higher fidelity production, too, as the comforting hiss that lay like a fuzzy rug beneath Acquainted with Night is moderated. “In Verona” is emblematic of this break from business as usual. Built on three parallel piano chords, the song is shrouded in reverb, echoing the consecrated, conflict-free space referred to in the lyrics. “There is beauty/ There are no sides/ In Verona,” Neale incants, as synthetic strings undulate like angels floating high above church steeples. A drum pad reminiscent of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” ticks away pensively, as though counting down to an inauspicious end. There’s a tension here that she hasn’t shown before. It’s compounded by the biblical-inspired lyrics and epic, eight-minute runtime, all of which exemplify her increased confidence as a songwriter.
Star Eaters Delight feels, in many ways, freer and more sociable than its inward-facing, lockdown-released predecessor. This is ironic, considering the solitary environment Neale now enjoys, though it can be explained—at least partially—by Guy Blakeslee’s increased presence. Neale’s trusted producer makes significant contributions—whether he’s reinforcing her beloved Suzuki with a richer, more resonant organ on “If I Had No Wings” or, on the standout “Return To Me Now,” complementing her leisured barre chords with flares of lead guitar that sparkle and dissipate like fireworks in the distance. More than this, though, Blakeslee’s production injects the lo-fi aesthetic with more definition, helping Neale augment her sound while retaining—for the most part—that warm, home movie-esque energy that made her previous album so special.
As demonstrated by “In Verona” and the spectral, Nico-indebted “Must Be Tears,” Neale seems to be using her third album to practice letting go of her faithful crutch, the Omnichord, in order to discover what else this newfound freedom and time might generate. On “No Holds Barred” she tries shelving everything other than a trio of clean guitars, but, despite her voice sounding as heavenly as ever, the arrangements paddle through lukewarm doo-wop and falls short of everything else on the record. The Omnichord’s absence can’t be blamed, though. Even with the familiar buzzing underneath, “Faster Than The Medicine” resembles a half-finished mosaic. The propulsive, minor key single starts strong with spoonfuls of potential, but feels unbalanced and empty when compared with its closest relative on the album, “I Am The River.”
Thankfully, “Lead Me Blind” eclipses these minor shortcomings. The album’s understated finale finds Neale at a restful terminus: “You’re so lovely I can see/ No shadow there at all,” she sings over a bed of tape hiss and pianos twinkling like blue Christmas lights. It’s unclear who the recipient is, but it’s possible that the song’s title is bringing us full-circle, back to the river. In other words, Neale has placed her trust in life’s meanders—and in its source—and the result is her best work yet: a golden mean between experimentation and pop, lo-fi and hi-fi, vitality and rest. As a valedictory click of the cassette recorder turns the static into silence, there’s no doubt that, on Star Eaters Delight, she’s happy to be home.
Hadyen Merrick is a music writer from Brighton, UK. He contributes to Bandcamp, FLOOD, Pitchfork, Loud and Quiet and others, and was previously associate music editor for the cultural criticism site PopMatters. Please talk to him about music and let him on your podcast: @HaydenMerrick96