We all felt the world pause in 2020. Stuck inside our own versions of a health-political-economic-social purgatory, we either sifted through the shadows to find peace or secreted into seclusion and darkness waiting for the antidote. Faced with the uncertainty of any return to touring, and sensing an absence of fan appetite for new clubby releases, the dark synth pop duo Boy Harsher returned to their hometown of Northampton, MA where Jae Matthews’ MS diagnosis became their augur.
The duo originally met in film school where Matthews would write screenplays and her partner Augustus Muller would score on cassettes. This biography opened the door to the release of their fifth album: The Runner (Original Soundtrack) with an accompanying short film.
On first listen, the 29 minutes are almost visual, you feel the darkness through the thick prophet synth opening of “Tower” bleeding into over-processed vocals moaning desperate, repetitive lyrics.
The album progresses to 80s synth-pop in “Give Me a Reason”, a track that could easily fit in a scene depicting the transformation of a serial killer playing dress up. Arguably, the listener needs the film accompaniment to make sense of the progression, but the track will feel familiar to fans of the band, especially reminiscent of their popular songs “Pain”, “LA” and “Face the Fire”. While the synths and drums are similar to those of earlier records, the production sounds cleaner, bigger and more open. The synth hooks will appeal to fans of a wide range of synth-heavy music, like New Order, Depeche Mode and even Nitzer Ebb.
“Autonomy” feels like a salute to New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” with its classic synth lines and LinnDrum-esque beat. The track features guest vocalist and lyricist Cooper B. Handy aka Lucy, who voice feel more upbeat than Matthews’ performances on the rest of the album. This is fitting, as the song is one of the lighter and bouncier musical moments on the album, though the lyrics still portray darker subject matter and portend dark moments: “memory’s a blessing in a safe mind / feels lucky / somebody could replace mine”; and the chorus, performed by Matthews as almost a chant: “they’re on the move / they’re on to me / they’re on to you.”
Brooding synthesizers create the floor for the sinister, smudgy vocals of “The Ride Home”, with drilling bass drum hits that echo and swim in caverns of reverb, and ticking hi-hats that sound like they’re counting down to the end of the world. The spartan lyric, with lines like “you are the reason I’m alone”, takes the listener deeper into the end of a relationship.
Another track with strong deference to classics like Art Of Noise, Enigma, and Tangerine Dream is “Escape”. Here, the duo slows things down with mellow synths and a groovy electro beat while Matthews’ dark, moody voice delivers doomsday lines like, “taking it my way / going to the end / what’s done is done / my old friend.”
“Machina” is the most straightforward 80s jam on the record with its Human League “Don’t You Want Me”-styled hook that comforts us with the familiar. Guest vocalist Mariana Saldaña’s vocals, delivered in both Spanish-rap verses and English-pop choruses, lift the song into unique territory on the album that feels fun and dancefloor friendly. The Daft Punk-esque vocoder stabs send the chorus into an intoxicating disco-funk groove that feels like the crowning achievement of The Runner soundtrack.
The soundtrack finishes with “Untitled” and “I Understand”, both less dramatic than what you would expect from an outro, but a welcomed resolve into the band’s inner quiet.
Some could argue that the album conflates too many styles into one release, it is indecisive, non-committal, inconsistent and includes unfinished thoughts – but isn’t that a symptom of the uncertain times coupled with a multiple sclerosis diagnosis? The album triggers, it is unpredictable, but it maintains that undercurrent of romanticism that captivates the ear. I felt compassion from the haunt by the end of the album from their personal story rather than the music. This is where the accompaniment of the film could bridge the gap. Even an unfamiliar listener can appreciate the attraction this duo harnesses from their fanbase.
The pandemic, the diagnosis, and The Runner allowed the duo to flirt with new instrumentation and release style while returning to their roots to tell their story. Does this signal a new phase for the creators in film, or will they return to their original plan for a dance record? InThe Runner, Boy Harsher deliver variety for new listeners and for devoted fans, something new so they can continue to experience the band live but safe behind the big screen.