Nobody looks to Camella Lobo's Tropic of Cancer project for innovation. Since her debut in 2009, the Los Angeles-based artist has minutely chiseled away at a kind of monolithic sadness, and all of her songs have felt like variations on this theme. The problem with taking such a steadfast approach, of course, is keeping one's sound fresh, and making minor changes feel like major breakthroughs. Lobo's initial run of singles already cohered into a 2011 compilation, The End of All Things, which, while consistent, didn't feel like an album, as it lacked the variety and attention to sequencing one expects from the format. Restless Idylls follows up another run of singles, and though a couple of them do factor in here, this time the artist ably buffers them with new material. Overall, it is an album that will not take those who know her catalog by surprise, and yet it has enough slight deviations to feel like a new chapter.
The project's hallmarks are all on display: bare, unchanging drum-machine motors, a droning synth/guitar fog, and largely unintelligible lyrics delivered in a muffled moan. The title of the fifth track, "The Seasons Won't Change and Neither Will You," seems to sum up Lobo's motives. Sullenness might normally be thought of as a teenage trait, but Tropic of Cancer adapts it to adulthood; Restless Idylls' dread seems rooted in an eternal jadedness, the feeling that all the races have been run and the rest of life, like the monotonous arrangements, stretches out as a barren plain. The track's title also applies to Lobo's location in perpetually sunny Los Angeles, and the project is at its best when it lets in even the smallest hint of that light. "Children of a Lesser God" already arrived last year on the I Feel Nothing EP, but its chiaroscuro California-gothic arrangement sets it apart as this album's clear centerpiece. Lobo doesn't often let her melodies poke through, but here she does, letting gorgeous, crestfallen surf guitar penetrate ebbing synth strings. While the remainder is painted in darker hues, there are enough switches to keep things diverse. Propulsive early single "More Alone" falls closest to her prior work, and it should play gateway to these nuanced variations. On "Plant Lilies at My Head" and "Hardest Day," she incorporates the spectral twang of so many 1980s ethereal acts, while on "Court of Devotion," her brooding vocals come to the fore, almost to the point of intelligibility. She trades her ticking drum machines for tumbling wooden ones on "Wake the Night" and "Rites of the Wild," bringing to mind her sometime labelmates Raime; on the latter, an eerie windchime punctuates the mix. Still, all of these flirtations fall within the project's carefully defined parameters. As such, most of them are perhaps unlikely to win new fans. In the scope of the Tropic of Cancer catalog though, Restless Idylls is Lobo's most polished statement yet.