While Young Magic has always been enjoyable, oftentimes it was a passive enjoyment. Debut album Melt was pleasant enough to listen to start-to-finish multiple times, but only a few tracks (led by “You With Air”) touched the senses with much bravado, and 2014’s sophomore effort, Breathing Statues, seemed to blur the band’s progression. They were very much still the same band, but their development was suspect, and it often felt like singer Melati Malay deferred to long-time collaborator Isaac Emmanuel too often, perhaps in a show of middling confidence. But the past is the past, and on Still Life, Malay has found herself, or at least a part of it, and the result is a far more engaging sound that doesn’t rely so heavily on the synths of Breathing Statues. This is the realization of the band’s internationally-minded ethos and the best offering from Young Magic yet.
Malay ventured to her birthplace of Java, Indonesia to better understand the mystical life of her father, who passed away the previous year, and to make sense of her life and the circumstances that shaped her. With an island shack as her base camp, she traipsed the island with a recorder, aiming to connect with the spirits of her family and the sounds and music of her heritage. Naturally, the Indonesian gamelan—which bears the tonality of a wind-chime, emanating from a steel-based percussion instrument—is prominent throughout the album.
“Valhalla” is an obvious attempt at channeling her father’s presence, and the way Malay changes her vocal fluctuations adds mystique and genuine emotion to the track. She sings “Calling out to you in all directions” and then again in a cryptic quasi-whisper that builds a multi-dimensional feel and the sense that she is indeed communicating with the ghosts of her kin. Like the band’s previous work, the synths on Still Life still provide a canvas of punchy basslines, but it’s melodies that reign here, along with Malay, who has credibly established herself as the face of Young Magic. She’s opened herself up to become the project’s lead auteur, and the output feels less and less like she’s relying on the still-present Emmanuel to elevate her.
There are still shades of the passive sounds and pitfalls of the past, but now they collide with live strings, like on “IWY,” and are eclipsed by elaborate instrumental arrangements on “How Wonderful.” Malay brought in a cadre of international musicians for this effort, and it’s a decidedly global project (albeit focused on Indonesia this time around, rather than the ambitious-yet-stratified attempt at fusing the sounds of Africa, Micronesia and European cultures on other albums.) It’s beginning to seem as if Malay and Young Magic have seemingly cracked their own creative code.
On “Sleep Now,” we’re transported to an Indonesian island with the pleasantly pungent scents emitted from nearby plumeria groves filling the brisk and misty air as Malay atmospherically sings over a gamelan-tinged beat. “Sky Interior” never fully materializes into much, has an odd lyrical resemblance to The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” that feels out of place and adds to the album tapering off towards the end. The strongest moments are when Malay and Young Magic go “Full Indo,” like on the album’s most complete track, “Default Memory.” The depth of sounds and the synths have much more of a purpose than they’ve ever had for Young Magic. The music fills more space with intent, and layered vocal effects operate beautifully as Malay juxtaposes the line between “Default memory/default mystery.”
With Still Life, Melati Malay has opened herself up to seek out answers about who she is, where she came from and why. The metamorphosis of her personal quest has undoubtedly spilled over into this ultimate blossoming of Young Magic. Still Life manages to feel like Indonesia and when artists seek to understand themselves with music as their driver for catharsis and enlightenment, the end result will show what they’ve discovered.