Houses’ vocalist and Diplo protege Dexter Tortoriello has released his debut solo album as Dawn Golden. It’s called Still Life and it comes courtesy of Downtown Records and Mad Decent. But you should forget that I’ve just written this because, really, the record is nothing like what you’d expect from anyone associated with Diplo or Mad Decent. This is not a bad thing, however. On the contrary, Still Life is a gorgeous but haunting record about life, love, addiction and death. Being especially subtle and down-tempo, it’s almost the exact opposite of Diplo’s music. (FYI, we love Mad Decent and Diplo’s stuff. This just doesn’t sound like what you’d expect from those associations.)
“Swallow me hole,” Golden sings repeatedly during the deep opening track “Discoloration,” a song that begins with a funeral-esque hum and soon proves to be a dark, swirling R&B track with a futuristic vibe. It’s the sonic equivalent of watching someone splash water onto a beautiful water color painting of roses, causing the color to run, the red looking like blood pouring out of the paper and coming to life, dripping from the canvas, creating a chilling crime scene.
Halfway through the album, it does shift from it’s slow like honey, mellow vibe and fully erupt, almost in a violent way, as “Swing” begins with sonorous beats that seem meant to pulverize you. But then, once you’ve been shocked and are fully paying attention, things turn fairly subtle as Golden sings “darkness keeps me all alone” and other heartbreaking declarations. Eventually, he begs for one to let him let go. It’s a song about clinging to something helplessly, something you know is bad for you, something that cuts you so deep that you have to hide away alone and focus all of your attention on trying to control the bleeding.
“That’s the way it goes / That’s the way it goes,” he sings during “The Beekeeper,” a song with synths and static that almost sound like a swarm of bees buzzing around you, although that could just be coincidence. Lyrically, it’s a dreary number: “And when I met you, you were sweet / But now you’re out sucking dick, haven’t slept in a week.” Musically, it would seem to spite itself as it features some entirely uplifting vocal harmonies, perfectly sun-kissed, so as to remind you that there is life out there beyond, well, one’s lair of bees.
The theme of addiction reveals itself most lucidly during “Still Life”: “And your skin crawls and my jaw clicks / It’s not bad if you’re used to it / Not broke if it can’t be fixed.” (Love the double meaning of “fixed.”) It’s one of the album’s quietest songs, which features a few notes of moving piano that are looped over and over. Even if it track was an instrumental, it would make you think of crying and it might actually cause you to produce tears.
Throughout the majority of the album, Golden’s vocals are processed, almost sounding like a machine. It’s like listening to a newly self-aware artificial intelligence experiencing the full spectrum of human emotions for the first time. And the music is like listening to the sounds it makes as it’s struck with each emotion during the brief moments before it’s able to put those feelings into words. Suffice to say this is an album where every beat and vocal is intended to convey human emotion and not in some quick, fleeting way but in a deep if often dark way that seeps its way inside of you and makes you feel something. It’s impossible to listen to this album and not be affected by it. You can’t just put it on at work and listen to it as background music. It would surely break your concentration, sucking you into the stories Golden sings about, perhaps making you wax nostalgic about similar experiences you’ve had yourself.
Ultimately, Still Life plays like a classic novel, each song a chapter. And these chapters need to be read one right after the other, in the order that they appear on the album. Listening to them at random, or throwing select tracks onto a playlist of lesser tracks, will cause these songs to lose some of their meaning. They’d still be moving experiences, but they wouldn’t floor you in the way that taking in the album as a whole does. No, this album is meant to be consumed — to be digested — all at once, like eating one course after another at a gourmet restaurant that serves things like lavender and rose petals, the courses laid out in a very specific order so as to maximize the way each item will taste. Each dish is a delicacy, but together they are an exquisite meal. And so I suggest you listen to this album from start to finish, preferably with headphones while lying down and giving it your full attention, so that nothing subtracts from the experience.