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White Poppy - Paradise Gardens Music Album Reviews

Canadian songwriter Crystal Dorval melts away the haze of dream pop for her most clear-eyed and expansive music to date. 

As White Poppy, Canadian songwriter Crystal Dorval glides through dream pop’s highest altitudes with a guitar that rumbles like a jet engine. Releases like 2015’s excellent Natural Phenomena hid psychedelic Lisa Frank wonderlands and a distinct, unshakeable melancholy in their thick fog banks. On her follow-up, Paradise Gardens, these clouds clear to reveal her most immediate, adventurous music to date and the always razor-sharp songwriting that lurked behind them.

Whether you’ve just fallen in love or taken drugs, dream pop has always been great at mirroring wild shifts in brain chemistry, but Paradise Garden often sounds like a mind trying to hold itself together. Over the blissful drumbeat of opener “Broken,” Dorval sighs, “There’s a hole in my heart/Don’t know where the pieces are/There’s a hole in my head/Guess I’m better off than dead.” Her ethereal whisper makes no attempt to hide the dire image painted by the lyrics, which culminate in chants of “I don’t want to complain/I can’t help myself today” and a starry guitar solo. “Broken” is a gorgeously, euphoric song about feeling absolutely terrible, but it sets the tone for an album where Dorval achieves trippy highs by simply accepting the lows.
While Paradise Gardens recalls both dream pop originators like Cocteau Twins and revivalists like Dum Dum Girls, the direct and almost conversational way it explores subjects like depression is original. Depression doesn’t fit a tidy narrative, and Dorval’s layered writing captures the struggle of each new day. “Broken” and “Hardly Alive,” a song built on fuzzed-out guitars and driving drums that focuses on feeling trapped in your home, contain the album’s most anxious spirals. Yet it’s when Dorval shifts into the woozier side of her work that Paradise Garden takes on a meditative calm and a zen confidence.

“Memories,” the second track on the album, sets the leisurely pace that’s always suited White Poppy best. Over a shimmering guitar and simple drums, she delivers lines with a plainspoken simplicity that recalls Bill Callahan, letting each word hang for a moment before drifting to the next: “I/Am letting go/Of who/I used to be/Everything/I know/Is rearranging.” Each steady step brings the song closer to a kaleidoscopic beauty, and each fading memory seems to lift Dorval higher. On songs like the dubby “Hawk” and airy “Orchid Child,” Dorval’s hypnotic mantras float over her drifting guitar.

If previous White Poppy albums engulfed the listener in lo-fi guitar haze, Dorval unlocks new musical hues here by adding synths and samples. This experimentation leads to surprises like the magical “Something Sacred,” where Dorval, singing over a steady shuffle and chromatic guitar, is joined by the sound of a dolphin’s laughter bursting into the mix; the strange duet the two form has become one of my favorite musical moments of the year. It also gives us the staggering “Silence,” an unexpectedly uplifting song about feeling isolated that takes on a new power in a time of self-quarantine. “I/Am/Alone,” she sings in a whisper, letting each word hang over a distant glowing guitar, before adding “You/Are/Too.” It’s an equally heavy and heavenly realization, delivered in a moment when we are all trying to understand our situation and ourselves. White Poppy offers both blissful escape and inspiring strength just by taking it one day at a time.
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