Ghostly International has never been afraid to dip its toes into the pop waters—the low-toned, Berlin-period Bowie-isms of Matthew Dear and the swirling, overstuffed swoon of Deastro come to mind, but there are plenty of other pop-tinged nuggets nestled throughout the label’s discography.
But rarely has Ghostly embraced pure pop as fully as it has with cousins Chloe Kaul and Simon Lam, the Australian duo better known as Kllo. Their label debut, last year’s Well Worn EP (itself a follow-up to 2014’s Cusp and a 2015 seven-incher, “Underlie”) saw the pair perfecting a finespun, occasionally otherworldly version of synthpop, one that fused skittering rhythms indebted to two-step, UK garage and the like to wistful melodies and yearning vocals. Kaul and Lam’s latest release, Backwater, is a further refinement of their sound, fleshing it out and blanketing it with a gauzy patina that’s almost intrinsically appealing.
The album’s lead track, “Downfall,” sets the tone for much of what follows. Skipping breakbeats, looped synth patterns and clipped vocals set the tempo; quietly majestic orchestration and a melancholy-tinged tunefulness set the mood; and Kaul’s gentle but confident singing provides the focus, via lyrics concerned with the fact that life is a series of hurdles to be overcome. (At least, we think that’s what she’s referring to—her songwriting tends to be on the hazily oblique side. Elsewhere, the elusiveness of love seems to be a common theme.) The song builds, gracefully and nearly imperceptibly, into something approaching a crescendo, before finally drifting off. It feels like a fleeting reverie, leaving a spectral hint of longing in its wake.
At times, there’s a bit more intensity: the cracking snare, cascading keys, swirling vocal sample, and sparse yet forceful low end of “By Your Side,” for instance, lend a powerful poignancy to its repeated “want to be by your side again” lyric. At other times, the songs drift through the firmament, as with the pensive, layered “Nylon,” a hymnal, nearly beat-free ode to a love affair that might, perhaps, be doomed. Some of the cuts lean toward R&B, as with the spectral ballad “Too Fast”; others, like the shivering “Making Distractions,” are imbued with a touch of delicate abstraction.
In truth, these are only the slightest of variations of a theme, one that’s defined by gorgeous sound design (some of its synth washes can raise goosebumps), lush arrangements, soft-focus vibe and most of all, the album’s hugely emotive melodies and Kaul’s intimate, affecting voice. But really, that lack of variation is one of Backwater’s strengths—Kllo have created a gossamer dreamscape of a world, and it’s a gorgeous place to dwell for a while.
02 Still Motion
05 Last Yearn
08 By Your Side
09 Making Distractions
10 Too Fast
12 Not Like Them