Album Review: Sally Decker – In The Tender Dream

[NNA Tapes; 2021]

After a couple of releases under her previous moniker as Multa Nox, the Oakland-based artist Sally Decker is now releasing under her own name. And with this change comes her putting her voice more clearly into her music too. While it was present on her 2017 full-length debut Living Pearl, it was a whisper hidden under the sparkling hum of ambient drones; on her new album, In The Tender Dream, her voice is clear and discernible, a contemplating articulation of thoughtful self-evaluation.

Not at first though; it takes a journey to come out into the open, which lines up with Decker’s introspective angle which she explores throughout the album’s runtime. Decker arrives with “The Other Side”, and, fittingly, it’s like a record capturing a spectre through EVP, a nameless ghost heard through distorted radio static. It’s hazy, crunchy, and unclear, like a combination of the first ever recorded voice and the vocals from múm’s Please Smile My Noise Bleed.

It’s not until the 11-minute centerpiece and title track does her voice come into clear view; “I want to stare myself down in the tender dream,” she calmly confesses. A self-proclaimed “documentation of [her] evolving understanding of what self-love really is,” Decker emerges at the end of the track after eight minutes or so of ringing, daylit drones and static chirps, like some sort of electrical primordial soup. The clarity comes with time and focus.

But as much as In The Tender Dream is a reflective journey of personal self-discovery with lamentations of self-love, loss, and longing, it’s also a musical milestone for Decker. Encouraged by her mentors, she concentrated on working with feedback, learning to embrace the chaos it brought and to sometimes lose control in a creative setting. The results make for harsher tones and textures compared to her previous releases. The 85-second “All Possible Realities” at the opening of the record swallows itself continuously, like a beginner’s experiment with feedback, while final track “Seen” contorts harsh distorted rhythms into curious melodic patterns, like something from Tim Hecker’s oeuvre. It’s not necessarily pleasant listening, but by the end of the album it sounds like Decker has learned to control the feedback beast into forming shapes and figures.

The album isn’t without its gorgeous moments though, namely “Abode”. The embryonic warmth of the drones make for an aqueous ambience that is as sublime to sink into as it is to leave on to create a more amicable room temperature. It almost feels separate from the album’s other material, so spellbinding is it. “Affirmation Pt. II” comes close though, all starry and reflective glimmers, like wine glasses being played through an effects pedal. When the voices of guests Briana Marela Lizárraga and Emily Cardwell appear, they sound like echoing self-help instructions you heard in a dream once.

If there’s any advice that should come with In The Tender Dream, it’s that it should be consumed as a whole, a 43-minute excursion of self-examination and morphing drones and ambience. Moments like the fraying edges and glitchy static of “Endlessly”, the on-the-spot experimentation of “Stair”, or the aforementioned opening duo of “The Other Side” and “All Possible Realities” don’t make for especially engrossing and rewarding listening experiences on their own. Likewise “Affirmation”, with its testing, repeated utterances of “Now I am more myself” from Briana Marela Lizárraga, is not something that warrants recurrent plays by itself.

In the context of the whole though, these tracks make more sense. Not unlike claire rousay’s a softer focus or Karima Walker’s Waking the Dreaming Body, both from earlier this year, Decker conjures echoes of others, but finds a personal angle to look through and explore. In The Tender Dream might not always be a soothing (or indeed, tender) listen, but that’s not the point: by testing new creative methods and letting some of the dynamic control go to the feedback machine, Decker finds new ground and new sound worlds to explore. This album is a sidecar in the journey she takes.