Album Review: MorMor – Semblance

[Don't Guess Inc; 2022]

The collective trauma of lockdown is probably still too fresh to fully process, but it’s fair to say that many of us, cut off from much of what made life worth living, became shells of ourselves: incomplete semblances of the people we had been just a year prior. It’s unlikely that the title of the new MorMor record, Semblance, has anything notionally to do with this, but given Seth Nyquist’s style and modus operandi (insular psych-dream-pop, self-performed, recorded and produced) and the time during which the majority of its songs were written, the spectre of self-isolation inevitably looms large over the project, suffusing its sound with a profound sense of solipsism, loneliness and self-doubt.

MorMor announced his arrival in the Before Times of 2018 with a series of enigmatic singles, to be collected on an EP, characterised by minimally effective instrumentation, an ear for unusual chord progressions and memorable melodies, all carried by Nyquist’s androgynously beautiful vocals. It was a unique concoction of bedroom dream pop, psych and soulful alternative RnB that marked him out as an act to watch. A second EP, Some Place Else, released the same year, seemed to indicate a retreat into dreamier textures still, with greater emphasis on the higher register of his vocal range and less on immediately accessible hooks. It felt simultaneously more ethereal and cerebral, in that it appeared to be indicative of an exploration of the recesses of Nyquist’s imagination: an attempt to capture the sounds in his head, rather than flexing his considerable melodic chops. 

That trend seemingly continues on this new debut full length, which under Nyquist’s self-production, is smothered in reverb and blown out sonic textures, occasionally foregoing drums entirely to resemble ambient music with angelic close-mic’d vocals.

Opener “Dawn” sets the cinematic tone, with subterranean bass, swelling synths and Nyquist’s vocals echoing around as if bouncing off the walls of your skull. Buried drums gradually emerge as the track blossoms into something beautifully lovelorn, but also overwhelmingly digital: emotions rendered in 0s and 1s, a simulacrum of feeling.

However, the following run of songs highlight the poppier, more immediately accessible side of MorMor’s sound. “Seasons Change” doesn’t just recall Future Islands in name, but also in overall aesthetic: it’s a driving piece of indie pop with production elements that would have been at home on Frank Ocean’s Blonde. The drums and bass are punchy and there are enough sonic details to pore over to make up for the lack of obvious progression in the track. “Far Apart”, another advance single,  resolutely brings the funk and features one of Nyquist’s most dynamic vocal performances, hitting Prince-level high notes, and even breaking down into a brief rap section. As on many of the tracks presented on Semblance, the blown out production (which recalls the future-funk of Yves Tumor at times) renders the words intentionally hard to make out, but it’s an impressionistic approach that works and the emotional gist – predominantly romantic melancholy – comes across clearly.

“Here it goes again” features one of Semblance’s most undeniable but also most uncannily familiar sounding chorus melodies. It feels like a song out of step with time, like a classic unearthed and recontextualised. It’s also remarkably straightforward compared to what follows. “Days End” starts innocuously enough in smooth ballad fashion, with ASMR humming like Nyquist is singing into the marrow of your bones, but introduces numerous incongruous textures, such as a rising alarm call, before the instrumental falls away entirely and the vocal track is isolated. Nyquist finds a beautiful way to express profound loneliness during this extended beatless section: it’s like he’s singing over Selected Ambient Works Volume II offcuts. It’s subtle, but impossibly, achingly beautiful.

“Lifeless” is probably the most overt lockdown-experience and/or living with depression song. A gentle acoustic guitar pattern underscores a track that moves unhurriedly. “And you try to take me outside my head,” Nyquist sings revealing the solipsistic tendency that informs the aesthetic of Semblance as a whole. There’s a resigned hopelessness to the track, reflecting the sentiment of the lyrics that it’s hard to trust what life is really like when life is lifeless. Depressing stuff, for sure, but it’s delivered in the form of a pill that’s easy to swallow: Nyquist’s consistently beautiful vocal phrasing floats atop an admittedly blandly tasteful beat and swelling synths that are nothing if not pleasant on the ears.

This in itself raises a concern about the record in that it could easily retreat into the background during the relative lull of its middle section; this is music that can be inoffensive to a fault, leaving the listener wishing that Nyquist would cut loose like he once did at the climax of his stunning early single “Heaven’s Only Wishful”.

But there are rewards for listening closely; there’s detail hidden in the reverb-heavy mix. “Crawl” boasts a driving industrial beat that adds intriguing colour to a song that, again, is perhaps guilty of not going far enough for a song about “crawling to the edge” for someone. The funky flair of “Far Apart” returns for “Chasing Ghost” and injects some much-needed energy into proceedings, especially when the fuzzed out guitar solo hits.

“Don’t Cry”, which dates back to 2020, is the outlier on the album, something lampshaded by Nyquist when he proclaims that “this is not a love song.” It’s a propulsive, motorik, post-punk banger that indulges in a level of gothic drama that’s at odds with the rest of Semblance, culminating in distorted screams stereopanning around whilst Nyquist repeatedly whispers half reassuringly/half-threateningly “don’t you cry.” Whilst it’s a welcome change of pace, it stands so far apart from the dreamy vibe that Nyquist has constructed with such care across the record, that for me at least it might have been better left as a standalone single.

Compared to “Don’t Cry”, the final tracks feel like a shock of a comedown: two more ballads, one resolutely analogue with strummed guitar and sumptuous strings creating a golden age Hollywood, lovelorn vibe; the other a slow-burning, ambient electronic track with angelic multitracked vocals that ends up going full cinematic widescreen, recalling no less than Hans Zimmer’s “Time” from the Inception soundtrack. Twinkling harps and Nyquist’s breathy speak-singing are the last things we hear on the record before it retreats back into the silence from which it so gently arose.

After such promising EPs, my expectations were high for the debut MorMor record, and given that Semblance is such a subtle, delicate record for the most part, it’s easy to feel underwhelmed as a result. It strikes me as an album you should be listening to in a sensory deprivation tank. It’s too fragile and vaporous to survive against the noise, distraction and chaos of the outside world, a bit like how we all felt after 18 months of living in a semblance of the world we once took for granted.

The sense that Nyquist conveys of really trying to recreate the sounds he hears in his own head, and the expression he gives to the sense of isolation and loneliness precipitated by being cut off from the world around you, where love and what makes life worth living feel like ghostly apparitions slowly retreating into the abyss of crumbling memory, are what make Semblance a magnetic record. It doesn’t all hit with equal impact or effectiveness, and lacks some of the enigmatic charm and minimalist confidence of MorMor’s first batch of singles (the heavy use of reverb and overblown instrumentation at times serves as a mask to seemingly protect us from too direct exposure to overwhelming emotions), but at its best it’s some of the most beautiful pop music you’ll hear this year, best enjoyed on your own, headphones on and eyes closed.