Album Review: Helena Deland – Someone New

[Luminelle; 2020]

After her 2016 inaugural EP, Drawing Room, Canadian musician Helena Deland decided on an unorthodox approach to releasing her music. She chose to break up her following set of tracks into short volumes from a series she dubbed Altogether Unaccompanied. Now, two years later, she has forgone this serialized format for a more traditional “debut” album.

Fittingly, the album is called Someone New and introduces us to a new Deland that’s more focused and refined. Unlike Altogether Unaccompanied, which had Deland oscillating between spunky indie rock, electric folk, and dancey synth-pop, Someone New uses a much more modest set of sounds. This newfound directness is a welcome move for Deland, but at times it acts as a double-edged sword. Someone New is an enjoyable, concise listen, yet the tracks occasionally feel indistinct from one another.

Tonally, Someone New is darker than Deland’s previous work. The cover art portrays a painted Deland surrounded by a black background and the sullen image screams isolation and dissociation – feelings Deland has described when discussing the themes of the album. “I noticed my troubled relationship with my body, which escaped my control and gave others so much information it seemed to withhold from me,” Deland said. She touches on this subject throughout the record, but the idea is best encapsulated in the track “Pale” where she sings: “Spending this much time / In my naked body’s / Not making it familiar to me.” Deland’s bluntness in confronting discomforting realities makes for compelling subject matter, but the songs often get lost in their own malaise. 

Deland is most successful when she plays to her pop sensibilities. Early highlight “Truth Nugget” opens with a set of heavy, duelling bass lines and chugging beat that is soon accompanied by a lovely vocal performance from Deland. The way she frames the lyrics is almost voyeuristic: “Watch me do my makeup and hair / While you make up hypotheses out of thin air / I am another solid mystery when it comes to you / Michael, I’m the puzzle in the other room,” she describes in the chorus. Deland places us in Michael’s perspective here, again tying back into her anxieties around how others perceive her body. “Comfort, Edge”, another standout track, includes the most interesting guitar work on the album as well as an undeniably catchy chorus. Nothing pushes past mid-tempo on Someone New, but the upbeat songs tend to convey Deland’s raw emotions more effectively. The main exception to this is “Clown Neutral”, a striking ballad where Deland gives a stirring vocal performance over a soft strummed electric guitar and vocal choir that levitates in the background. 

The limited palette Deland employs contains some interesting production techniques that help breathe life into the otherwise stark and cold recordings, yet many of the tracks walk a fine line between purposeful restraint and a lack of musical depth. By the time you reach the later section of the album, tracks like “Mid-Practice” and closer “Fill the Rooms” sound all too familiar. Still, there is a haunting beauty to the music of Someone New that’s oddly enticing. You can feel the songs dragging you closer, like an unexplainable desire to explore the unknown. 

It was a bold move on Deland’s part to opt for such a sobering tone on her debut album, and you have to give her credit for staying true to the topics that emotionally resonated with her during the writing process. Though lacking in musical revelations, there are more than a few moments on the album that highlight her sharp instincts as a songwriter. There is a catharsis to Someone New that’s palpable, and if Deland harnesses that going forward, things can only get brighter from here.