Every once in a while, a producer will come around with enough charisma and bravado to (slowly) transition into subversive pop stardom. Think How To Dress Well’s gut-wrenching, sensual R&B, or the way Arca’s quivery avant-garde beats led to her deconstructive diva status—there comes a point where an artist’s production is so crisp, it’s not a question of how the album is engineered. Instead, it becomes a game of elevation.
Salvador, the debut album by Sega Bodega (aka Salvador Navarrete), by no means sounds like a first attempt from the Glaswegian producer. Known for his “deconstructive club” work with NUXXE labelmates Shygirl and Coucou Chloe, an imprint the three founded together, Navarrete’s work is defined by his maximalist yet sensitive ear. Throughout Salvador, Navarrete uses the lexicon of modern club music and intimate, reflexive lyrics to create an astonishingly confessional art-pop album. There’s a self-awareness to the themes that bind Salvador which prevent it from straying into braggadocious territory. While Navarrete might be flippant with emotions of others, party until he drops and throw abandon out the window, he toils with suicidal ideation, alcoholism, and self-destructive tendencies. If rendered any other way, he would be wholly difficult to like. Instead, Navarrete uses lush soundscapes—almost comically serene—to imbue deep sympathy for his wavering mental state.
Navarrete makes no concessions for his actions. He presents himself earnestly: He can be both a selfish asshole and a problematic friend. But that doesn’t mean we can’t feel for him. His lyrics, as candid as they are, utterly shock in their directness, yet are laden with irony so that they aren’t too immediate; they’re musings that, as a stranger, you would be completely unable to respond to. Take “Masochism,” which surges with a dark, sexy garage beat. The song is anything but sexy, though: On the track, Navarrete sings “I must be stopped / I’ll drink until my liver surely pops.” What are we, the audience, supposed to do with this admission?
If “Calvin” is any indication, someone should do something. An ode to his best friend Calvin who committed suicide, Navarrete said via Instagram, “The topic of men being raised and trained to be emotionally stunted and literally denied the ability to show weakness [isn’t discussed enough]”, continuing, “I really hope you cannot relate to the words.” Maybe, just maybe, through Navarrete’s shock and awe someone’s life can be saved; that’s what he hopes for, anyway, and as such, he’s as emotionally messy as he earnestly can be. But these tracks, as ripe as they are, were mostly written in the retrospective. Navarrete has been sober for several years—on “Masochism,” he’s recalling that gross irresponsibility he was once guilty of, embodying that character to disturb, and, at times, transform.
Many of the tracks on Salvador explore those walls men put up to refract their frailty. The album’s standout tracks “U Suck” and “Raising Hell” do this through exploring romance and sex respectively. “U Suck” opens with cinematic violin, not unlike what you might find on a sentimental post-punk track (he loves to elevate songs with baroque flourishes, like the far-flung harpsichord on “2 Strong”), then follows with “I don’t mean to be rude, but honestly fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” continuing ad nauseam for some time. As the track continues, Navarrete questions why he and the song’s recipient even hate each other, and, as if talking to himself after a heated text conversation, wonders “is it obvious that I’m just crushing?” By the song’s end, their relationship is still unresolved—in a quiet, childlike outro, Mimi Wade soliloquizes “sometimes you don’t see it but I love you, love you, love you, love you,” a Shakespearean-level loose thread in their will-they-won’t-they back and forth. It’s sad, a testament to the melodramatic war of attrition of reticent post-internet relationships.
“Raising Hell,” instead, finds Navarrete feeling alone and “horny with [his] phone,” so he does what any modern man might and searches for a hookup. There’s a bizarreness to how the track is constructed: It’s as close to an anthem as the album gets, complete with claps and triumphant harmonies, but it’s a song about the meaninglessness of a booty call and the mishandling of others’ emotions, beset by the comfortable distance achieved behind a smartphone. “Even if heaven fell, I would never love you / I would never fuck you through my phone / Don’t go raising hell, I don’t fucking know you / You don’t fucking know me,” the chorus goes, cloaked in autotune. Navarrete is fond of using voice modulation when he’s feeling his most cagey, most afraid of the soul-bearing gazes of those he’s singing to.
Sometimes it can be too much. “U Got The Fever” is Navarrete’s callout of an “evil unbeliever,” relying on tropes of clingy exes to forge a contrasting narrative. It doesn’t feel nearly as ironic a sentiment as any other song, though it’s also the album’s most traditionally electro offering, complete with Avicii-esque whistles. Navarrete’s excellence as a songwriter (a stark differentiation from his strength as a producer) lies in his outsider perspective and his ability to flip that on its head. “U Got The Fever” feels too populist to resonate.
In direct opposition to “U Got The Fever” is “Kuvasz in Snow,” where, after an album’s worth of problematic behavior and rightful dude-go-homes, Navarrete is at his most crystalline, fragile yet with sharpened edges. It’s his least emotively drowned cut, in which he proffers a classic “just give up on me, I’m a lost cause.” In the album’s final moments, Navarrete sings, limpidly, “Masking is all that we know / We hide in plain sight like Kuvasz in snow,” played out by radiant piano crescendos. As the record fades, twinkling with final signs of life as a send-off, we’re left to realize men like Sega Bodega are everywhere, struggling in much the same way—they just aren’t honest about it. Instead, they roll around in muck like dogs, waiting to be spotted in a beautiful, cold world of white.