The hard truth is, no matter how many albums we review each year, there are always countless releases that end up overlooked. That’s why, this month, we’re bringing back our
No Album Left Behind
series, in which the Paste Music team has the chance to circle back to their favorite underrated records of 2021 and sing their praises.
The words in Taja Cheek’s songs often matter less than how she says them. On Fatigue, the Brooklyn experimentalist’s wondrous second album as L’Rain, much of her lyricism borders on inaudible, but her soulful quiver, warbly arrangements, and constant sense of free-fall and expansion illuminate her unceasing emotional flux. When the lyrics are occasionally discernible, the fluid, yet familiar shape of her abstract introspections becomes clearer, like steam rapidly condensing into ice. It’s the sound of someone drifting through their thoughts and feelings, helpless to how their words change as they pour out into the real world. It’s a breathtaking, immersive, often mournful exploration of the fundamentally transformative, ever-changing nature of feeling.
Where Cheek sounded like she was reporting from underwater on her self-titled 2017 debut, Fatigue remains lucid and crystalline even at its densest. The clarity befits the album’s permanent state of oscillation: As Cheek surveys death and jazz-folk one moment, and rebirth and rave music the next, the album flows seamlessly and engrossingly. She flits playfully and blurrily among seemingly infinite paths: On “Find It,” she works through hymnal passages, brassy then watery ambiance, and ballistic convocations in one cohesive package. The track’s two clear lines are “Feel bad just to feel sane” and the chant “Make a way out of no way,” and the incantation-like effect is as captivating as the sentiment: Stay resilient even when it feels impossible. Monumental centerpiece “Kill Self” starts as a bluesy, desolate guitar number and explodes into a lo-fi techno banger with miraculous finesse, a not-even-two-minute masterwork as astonishing as it is invigorating. Cheek’s vocals pour into the music like creamer into black coffee, sweetening the whole thing with abundant, yet untraceable spirals. There are maybe three clearly audible lines the whole time, but the taste is so rich the individual elements don’t need to be plainly identifiable.
When Cheek’s voice does occasionally rise above the beautiful din, she builds mournful worlds with stunning word economy. “You were wasting away, my God / I’m making my way down south,” she sings in a near-falsetto on “Blame Me” atop the barest of guitars, vividly painting a picture of what it’s like to jet across the country when a loved one’s health is in decline. “Fought my demons until you were old,” she sings later as the track grows to include dulcet strings and vaporous percussion. In just one line, she conjures how deeply she regrets not spending more time with a now-deceased loved one. Grief underlies even her most jubilant scenery: The bouncy piano line of “Two Face” is initially deceptive amid what’s mostly a moody, shadowy album, but her reflections on a former connection continue threading Fatigue’s patchwork of loss. “When you close your eyes, do you think of me? / Singing every word, holding both your hands, crying by your side,” she wonders, all but directly opening the door to her memories as she reckons with the distance she feels now. In the moments when she sheds her hazy accoutrements, she plants you right next to her.
Between this transparency and Cheek’s concrete, yet indefinite songs lie the album’s sketch-like experiments, which comprise about half its tracks. These moments serve as more than interludes: They give dimension to how Cheek assembled an album with a structure as loose as sand pouring through an hourglass. “Black Clap” is a brief recording of the hand-clapping game she invented in the studio to use as percussion on other tracks. A phrase that sounds like “So anyway, you can just do everything, duh” underlies the playful pitch-shifting of the 10-second cut “Not Now,” a mission statement included almost as a footnote. But it’s opening collage “Fly, Die” that reveals the most about Fatigue. “What have you done to change?” guest vocalist Quinton Brock asks, his voice clipping into all manner of manipulated shapes as the last two words repeat—and then Cheek answers that question with the remainder of these songs. Or at least she attempts to: On Fatigue, she’s in such constant motion that change transforms from a desirable outcome to a permanent way of moving through her thoughts. And that’s precisely the point.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes he just sits. Oh, and sometimes he critiques, too. Follow him on Twitter and find his writing at Pitchfork, The A.V. Club, MTV News, FLOOD, The Creative Independent and, of course, here at Paste.