Album Review: Puma Blue – In Praise of Shadows

[Blue Flowers; 2021]

Most everyone has seen the numerous videos on YouTube titled something along the lines of ‘chillhop study’ or ‘work beats 24 hours’. The reason why this type of music is used by many while performing various activities is because it is perfect to be played in the background; it does not distract or divert one’s attention from the task at hand. However, could music that sounds this way elicit an emotional response and, in this way, distract one from working? Jacob Allen aka Puma Blue gives the listener exactly that. His debut album In Praise of Shadows can be deceiving; although it sounds soothing and is in the same vain as those work music playlists, it does not let the listener focus on anything else – there is genuine emotion in these tracks that must be acknowledged.

In Praise of Shadows already showcases the development of Puma Blue as an artist. His first EP Swum Baby was quite reminiscent of early King Krule or a much softer version of boy pablo. This record strays away from all of that and here Allen expresses his jazzy and even R&B influences. At certain points, Allen seems to be almost mimicking the sound of other moody indie-pop bands, but it is not copy-pasting; in subtle harmonic details Puma Blue personalizes this sound. Certain points in the album sound quite cinematic; tracks like “Sheets” and “Is It Because” could easily be envisioned in a modern arthouse piece such as Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise or a Wes Anderson picture.

Perhaps the greatest aspect of In Praise of Shadows is its diversity of sound. In a lo-fi indie-pop record of this kind it is quite a rarity to hear various influences coexisting in such harmony; mostly because there are few albums that cover a wide range of influences. As mentioned before, it radiates strong chillhop study beats vibes, which is more on the hip-hop spectrum than anything else, while at the same time it can be reminiscent of the heavily reverberated style of Cigarettes After Sex, while Allen’s vocal style is akin with that of The xx’s Oliver Sim. At the same time, the entire album is enveloped in very jazz-influenced sounds that could be likened to the band Morphine if their arrangements were made by Mac Demarco. Closing track “Super Soft” even brings in a surprising acoustic sound that throws Phil Elverum into the mix of influences.

The main drawback of In Praise of Shadows is its awkward pacing, which starts to lose intrigue as it stretches to its 52-minute runtime. Fortunately, this is made up for with two great finishing tracks that just about manage diminish the rising sleepiness.

Puma Blue’s debut LP is certainly a new step in Allen’s development as an artist. This album was reportedly influenced by the Nomadic lifestyle that he took on while recording it, as well as a personal tragedy, but one of the greatest aspects of In Praise of Shadows is the lack of need to know this in order to enjoy it. Allen’s songwriting is the sole thing that needs to be focused on; the impressiveness comes from the variety of sounds and the subtle details. It would be truly surprising if someone were able to use this as background music.