Junior Boys have always been switching things up. Sometimes it’s been almost imperceptible, like the languorous glossy sheen of Begone Dull Care and It’s All True distracting from the live instrumentation, or the shift into Detroit-indebted techno on their last album, Big Black Coat. It’s been six years since that last full length, and that’s more than enough time for a readjustment. Singer Jeremy Greenspan has been plenty busy though; in the intervening years he’s produced two records for Jessy Lanza, cared for and mourned his father, and built and set up his own recording studio in Ontario.
The construction of his studio seems of particular importance, Greenspan putting great focus on creating the right space for his music. “The mixing room is 20 decibels. When you get into it, alone, that kind of quietness puts you in a completely different headspace,” he explains. Drawing from recording sessions in early 2020 with bandmate Matt Didemus, Greenspan wrote and recorded Junior Boys’ latest album, Waiting Game, during the lockdown period. But because Greenspan thereafter spent some half a year learning to use, cleaning, and recalibrating the tape machines installed in his studio, the mixing stage of the album became an extended exercise.
The end result seems to befit the process and the album title. Waiting Game is like no other Junior Boys record, mostly airy landscapes and processed voices and scant on the sultry R&B and electronica that they are known for; listeners would be forgiven if they find themselves double checking they hit play on the right artist. Inspired by two of Greenspan’s new hobbies – watching ‘slow’ TV and aquascaping – and no doubt also a response to the lockdown period and the death of his father, this is contemplative music for time alone.
After a cold winter morning stretch of an introduction, “Night Walk” begins to find some life – even though it’s a primordial soup bubbling away as a pitch-shifted voice sings despondently into a chasm. Like a classic Junior Boys track stripped right away to its barest elements, it’s stark and quietly shocking in a way. “How am I supposed to feel?,” Greenspan asks. A sort of unsatisfied melancholia seems to be the answer. Though the duo’s albums have always been the kind that reward listening on a good pair of headphones, Waiting Game is definitely the apex of that; this is an album you need to listen closely to so as to reap any rewards.
And there are some, but they mostly come when what feels like familiar territory simmers to the surface. On fourth track “Thinking About You Calms Me” we get the first instance of Greenspan entering as himself, his voice familiar over plastic percussion dribbling back and forth as he sings the titular words in that heartfelt manner he’s spent years perfecting. The juxtaposed flash and glitz of the bridge almost feel out of place, and there’s a similar feeling on the final title track where his voice again comes to the surface without any effects. Moments like this remind you you’re listening to a Junior Boys record, those swells of colour amidst the monochrome world of the rest of the album.
To its benefit, the album does sound like it has made use of that 20 decibel mixing room. There’s a density murmuring on these tracks, a kind of heavy feeling somewhere just out of the normal range of hearing, all making for a strangely unsettling sensation. It’s not quite enough to bulk up moments that just disintegrate as soon as they are done though. The hazy opener “Must Be All The Wrong Things” with a glisten here and a gloopy and gulping bass there, the hiccuping robotic voice on the odd interlude “It Never Occurred To Me”, and the slow-moving backdrop casting the odd latin poetry on “Dum Audio” are all moments that feel like the aural equivalent of a breath of air dispersing into a cold atmosphere.
While there might be a leftover unsettled feeling lingering across the album’s relatively short runtime, the main thing that’s missing is any tangible emotional resonance. Only occasionally does it feel like there’s something to grasp, like the rubbery synths squiggles and busy backdrop of “Yes 2”, which could easily slip into one of the duo’s previous records. And while the latter half of the album is certainly accentuated lightly by the handsome velvety sax of Colin Fisher, repeated listens of Waiting Game feel like standing at an abandoned train platform for a carriage that isn’t going to arrive. Junior Boys’ track record shows that change is good, but here it feels like the tiptoe before a more significant step.