So I’m listening to DeepChord — old DeepChord, which does not sound terribly different from new DeepChord–and it’s got me wondering at what point focusing on a certain aesthetic runs the risk of turning into relying on that aesthetic. Is it when that aesthetic’s “cultural moment” has passed but an artist’s vision has not? Is it during a lull in an artist’s output, during which we might reexamine their earlier material and see that, hey, maybe there hasn’t been much stylistic evolution happening here at all? And why do some artists (such as DeepChord) seem to “get away with” a seeming repetition of a singular style, whereas other artists get branded a “one-trick pony” for doing the same thing? Perhaps this isn’t quite a fair question, given the limitations inherent to the “dub techno” genre. So let’s think outside that box for a second.
Maria Minerva, the Estonian singer-songwriter whose bedroom electropop somehow seems to effortlessly attach itself to some pretty erudite philosophical discourse, had quite a busy 2011. With no fewer than four releases, including a much-heralded cassette full-length (Tallinn at Dawn) and the nu-nu-age drifts of “Cabaret Cixous,” Minerva has quickly established herself as one of “the underground’s” most promising and prolific young talent. (Note: I am referring to a very specific portion of “the underground” here, one which aligns itself with the retro-not-retro musings of the Not Not Fun label and views “lo-fi” not so much as a stylistic choice but rather a necessity, a tool that can adapt itself to any number of interpretations, working either against or in concert with the music itself.)
So she’s understandably taken some time off from releasing new material in 2012. On the internet, however, this is a risky venture: while a pause in releases allows her earlier work to percolate and burrow itself further into our collective headspace, she also runs the risk of being, well, left behind: a relic of 2011, someone whose output encapsulated a scene that’s perhaps not quite as “in” as it was this time a year ago. In returning with Will Happiness Find Me?, Minerva seems to be asking other unspoken questions: is her music still “relevant,” or will she be seen as “trying too hard” to recapture the charmingly amateurish spirit of her earlier electronic escapades? Will this be a less lo-fi release, or will Not Not Fun’s tape-hiss aesthetic find its way onto this album as well? Did Minerva’s brand of silky new-age-synthpop already reach its heyday, and if so, what does that mean for how we interpret her newer work?
I can’t really delve into these questions any further without sounding like a bad Hipster Runoff knockoff, but needless to say, the big difference with this new record is that we have expectations for what it “should” sound like; I don’t think Minerva’s 2011 material suffered a similar burden. And in all fairness, I mean, that cover. The faux marble background, the sans-serif font, the beach-house-timeshare color scheme, the Print Shop font effects: hey guys, do you remember the ’90s too? Whereas last year, these superficial aspects — the cover art, the album presentation, etc. — might have just been fun accessories to the “main event” of the music itself, this time around they seem to herald a troubling redundancy. Are we really doing the half-remembered EDM-as-nostalgia thing again? Dylan Ettinger, another Not Not Fun artist, managed to escape this pigeonhole with his most recent release. Can Minerva do the same?
Okay, so I have plenty of questions. But how does the music sound? Well, Sacred & Profane Love seemed to signal a slightly different, beat-heavier direction for Minerva’s music, and Will Happiness Find Me? continues this trend. After a typically hazy intro, “The Sound” delves right into sped-up trip-hop 808s and, not too long after, handclaps. Unironic handclaps, at that. This is the first Maria Minerva album that I feel like a DJ could reasonably play at a dance club. Her ethereal, purposefully-sloppily-overdubbed vocals haven’t changed, but now they have a much stronger rhythmic backing.
“Heart Like A Microphone,” much like “The Sound,” begins with some ancient sample and whirling ambiance… only this time, the drums never arrive. It’s just glitches and drones, with her voice further up in the mix than usual. Lyrically speaking, she’s less coy than usual: “My heart is like an open door, just walk in.” When the beats kick back in on third track “I Don’t Wanna Be Discovered (Will Happiness Find Me?),” she maintains this forthright approach: “The world is a cruel place, baby/ You’ve got to sell your soul to survive/ I don’t wana be discovered; I just wanna lay low.” It’s a little unusual for a recording artist to admit that “I don’t want my voice to be heard,” but at least she’s being honest. As her trademark faded synths give way to an unexpectedly archaic-sounding fiddle sample at song’s end, it’s easy to picture Minerva getting happily lost in her loops and samples and sighs and electronics. It all seems less like bedroom-superstar posturing and more like the missives of a young woman whose music has garnered a wider audience than she probably imagined. Later on “Coming Of Age,” she points out that the “great love” she feels in her heart” is a “good start for the rest of my life.” Once again, her introvert’s gaze is fixed internally. “It’s so strange to see myself coming of age,” perhaps a comment on witnessing her own rising internet fame. “We make our wish upon a cloud,” she says, again distancing herself from the online hype machine of which she’s undoubtedly become a part. But can happiness find her all the way up in the clouds?
“Sweet Synergy” hearkens back to the hazy ’90s sound she played with on Cabaret Cixous, complete with C&C Factory effects and R&B romance tropes (“Boy, you drive me up the wall,” she self-harmonizes). But again, the percussion — claps, synth beats, bongos — are pushed up further in the mix, making their presence known more than the percussion in her earlier work has. The rap (yes, really) on “Fire” underscores this rhythmic focus. It’s difficult and kind of funny to imagine Minerva writhing in a bikini under a shower of champagne in one of those uber-stereotypical hip-hop music videos, and I don’t think that’s the point here.
Rather, on “Fire” and on this album as a whole, Minerva seems to be exploring different ways she can stretch her sound without actually sacrificing that sound. Like DeepChord, Minerva has found a style that works for/with her, and she’s in no hurry to abandon it. Also like with DeepChord, one might not hear many striking differences between her earliest and latest releases; upon closer examination of her discography, however, one can see stylistic evolutions unfolding slowly, subtly, and organically. Many of the songs here are more beat-oriented than those in her back catalog; other tracks, such as “Never Give Up,” find her at a weird crossroads of Julia Holter-like abstraction and a more Cankun-ish psych-rock vibe. But it’s not like this album represents a major artistic reinvention for Minerva; ultimately, her album’s titular question remains unanswered, proving that she hasn’t shed all (or even much) of her ambiguity. It would be all too easy for Minerva to stick to what she knows, and she could carve out a reasonably successful career for herself treading the same retro-futurist synthwave waters for a while; but there are signs here that she’s interested in moving beyond that aesthetic. The album’s closer, “The Star,” is a testament to this willingness to explore: heavy use of a delightfully bizarre and generation-spanning sample (from that lady-barbershop classic “Mr. Sandman”) shows that like Ettinger, Minerva seeks to look beyond the typical Casio-shaded purview of the Not Not Fun set while holding onto the style that’s brought her an audience thus far (via her trusty synth drones and echoing, cavernous vocals). It’ll be a difficult balancing act for sure, but I have faith that if anyone can walk such a tightrope without sacrificing musical enjoyability, it’s Minerva.