Album Review: Jerskin Fendrix – Winterreise

[untitled (recs); 2020]

Just like Black midi, Shame, Famous, and the mysterious Black Country, New Road, the equally puzzling Jerskin Fendrix has arrived as yet another product of the talented cauldron that is The Windmill venue in Brixton, London. Though the classically-trained, Cambridge-educated Fendrix shares the same beginnings as the aforementioned experimental rockers, his star may very well shine more abnormally than them all. While inhabiting the same brooding realm as them, there is an ineffable dystopian, hyper-experimental quality to Fendrix’s sound that makes him one of the more exciting purveyors of pop music’s future. 

Throughout Fendrix’s unruly debut album Winterreise (German for “Winter Journey”), listeners are privy to the quirky, arcane corners of a brilliantly paranoid and self-aware mind, bent through the vibrations of computer glitches and memories of a romantic relationship gone cold. Speaking of cold, the record’s inspiration can be traced back to 2017 during the New York blizzard, where this romantic relationship met its fate. The immediate pain of this experience catalyzed Fendrix’s journey of self-reflection and self-discovery, which he has brought to bear through a musical framework for the frigid digital age.

With the above sentiment beating as Winterreise’s prevailing heart, Fendrix casts a wide net for listeners to resonate with – albeit one woven from sarcasm, self-deprecation, and obscure cultural references. However, to fully fathom this paranoid pop tragedy through its irony, we must trace our steps back to the artist’s breakup, outlined plain as day by the sprawling murkiness of album opener “Manhattan”. 

At once beautiful and disturbing, this massive seven-minute track is a jaw-dropping art-pop display of two faces. The first half of the track sees the heartbroken Fendrix march head-first into the storm with melodic piano play and gorgeously buzzing horns, with the pop provocateur’s memories becoming more struck with grief. “If the first word counts / I don’t want it to… down from Grand Central / you said good words there / but I shut down,” he laments. At the song’s halfway point, Fendrix takes a sudden descent into a realm of torturous disillusion and distress; the classical sound gives way to undulating synth chaos, and Jerskin’s auto-tuned baritone ushers in the unsettling latter half. Initially posing itself as a heartwarming song of reconciliation, “Manhattan” turns out to be a shapeshifting beast that establishes the unhinged remainder of Winterreise

Following the confusing beauty of “Manhattan”, Fendrix delivers a bittersweet, minimal synth bop with “Onigiri”, where he waxes poetic about being back with this same individual: “I wanna wake up when you wake up / I want to die when you die / I want to read the same books you do / I want to eat the eggs you fry…” Reminiscent of a 100 gecs track, “Onigiri” catches Fendrix continuing to toy with the possibilities of autotune where he—in an obnoxiously high-pitched singing voice—compares himself to a ball of rice as he sifts through these delusional memories and desires.

Fendrix is an outspoken admirer of many eclectic artists, ranging from Japanese film directors, classical musicians like Franz Shubert (after whose song cycle Winterreise is named) and even transcendent hip-hop behemoths like Kanye West. It is no surprise then that his music is a mirrored manifestation of his tastes – albeit it a funhouse one. This is best displayed in the middle of Winterreise, as it takes an amorphous pop turn into the abstract through the three-track run of “Black Hair”, “Swamp”, and “A Star Is Born”.

Pulsating between NIN-inspired drum and bass and glitchy PC Music extroversion, the creeping, synth-soaked “Black Hair” is what happens when a heartbroken pop freakazoid sits and grieves over a breakup for far too long. Haunted by regret surrounding his ex, this remorse is embodied by the ghosts of—you guessed it— black hair. This wonderfully horrifying track takes inspiration from The Black Hair— a part of the 1965 Japanese horror anthology film Kwaidan where a poor swordsman separates from his wife to marry rich. Eventually, the swordsman sees his demise and is attacked by his poor wife’s corpse and black hair. Plagued by a similar nightmare, the sleepy and delirious Fendrix desperately tries to escapes ghosts of his own choices on “Black Hair”.

The unnerving energy of “Black Hair” seeps deeper into the crevices of “Swamp”, only to emerge with a brighter, tongue-in-cheek pop turn on “A Star Is Born”. With soaring synths and an impassioned chorus, “A Star is Born” exposes Fendrix’s hopeless core, as he reaches for empty success as a self-anointed pop deity. Stuffed with obscure cultural references, this explosive pop flex is another admirable display of Fendrix navigating personal psychological spaces with unsettling bombast.

Following all the musical twists and emotional freak-outs of Winterreise‘s opening six tracks, the remainder does the unthinkable and circles back to its subdued and beautiful beginnings. On the gentle “I’ll Clean Your Sheets”, we find Fendrix with a clearer, more accepting frame of mind as he once again recollects the setting of the breakup.

Fendrix progressively floats to reality through the even softer “Depecc”, before the album’s closer, and most gorgeous moment, “Oh God”, settles things. An emotional, melodic exhibition of self-acceptance, “Oh God” explodes as layers of crashing synths roll in, reflecting Fendrix’s outpouring of personal downfalls. A suitably powerful way to end what is an overwhelmingly off-the-wall record.

A collection of unhinged pop songs for unhinged times, Fendrix avoids breakup album clichés on Winterreise by combining them with a reality of batshit craziness. Bursting at the seams in self-loathing poetry and eccentric pop excursion, wracked with emotional complexities and sudden sonic interruptions, Winterreise is a lovelorn giant that establishes Jerskin Fendrix as one of pop’s bold new voices.