Modern electro-pop hasn’t felt this exciting in years. After spending much of the 21st century making its appeal to indie rock kids who mostly the idea of dancing in the abstract rather than in practice, it’s left those dorks behind in pursuit of nobler audiences: fans of ambient music and pop alike. Electronic music today feasts on this malleability of cadence, tone, timbre, and texture to create terrific collections of music that can hit the brain and heart in equal measure and without sacrificing artistic integrity. It’s a landscape in which insular gear nerds creating intricate compositions on their banks of synths and processors can be mentioned in the same breath as artists crafting immaculate hooks, grooves, and lyrics that hit people in their guts and feet.
Tess Roby joins that inventive milieu on her latest album, Ideas of Space. Released on her own SSURROUNDSS label, this 10-track follow-up to 2018’s Beacon pulses with the sort of lush, spacious synth-pop that deliciously blurs the line between haunting and dreamy. The combination of Roby’s lilting mezzo-soprano and the music’s sparse yet detailed arrangements call to mind a delirious blend of Brian Eno, Enya, and Goldfrapp.
While it’s easy to get swept up into Roby’s delirious range, the instrumentation on display throughout this record provides a grounded warmth. Deep, mysterious bass pulses sit just off a standard four-on-the-floor pattern, but since never rise to the level of actual syncopation, they provide a welcome steadiness without being a distraction. Brushed drumming and programming sit hand-in-hand with hushed percussion to deliver the rhythmic quirks that elevate the songs beyond familiar pop tropes. But it’s the warm synths and slightly jazz guitar licks that offer up a differentiated soundscape by inculcating a seeking, searching sensation to the listening experience.
With “Path,” we’re treated to rich layers of cooing synths, shuffling sound effects, and creeping bass. All the while, Roby’s melancholy pipes beckon onward, as if she was slowly traipsing through an open field. On “Euphoria in August,” intimate synth melodies provide a luxurious bed upon which her mellifluous voice can spread itself in every possible direction, much like sunlight coating the horizon as it sets on a late summer evening. “House/Home” is a delightful tune with a horn-like synth patch that ekes out a lovely melody line. A clattering snare rhythm oozes and creeps with a languid bass line combine to create a delicate urgency that never tips over into anxious energy. Drawing the album to a dramatic close, “Elegy Revisited” showcases Roby’s expressive low end against a hushed minor key arpeggio. When sound effects mimicking birdsong and rustling trees enter the mix, the song evinces a mood akin to someone mourning at the grave of a lost loved one.
Ideas of Space is a testament to the power of minimalism, especially as it steers clear of any cliched notions of empty space. There are no wasted notes here. Each sound has meaning and purpose to the overall musical architecture of these songs. Every gurgling loop or repeating pattern—be it a vocal melody, chord progression on the keyboard, synth patch, and more—adds value to the big picture. Despite the overtly airy nature of the music, Tess Roby has created, nothing ever floats away. The album balances this casual elegance with a welcome tension derived from examining one’s unresolved feelings and emotion like a mature adult. As the music gently builds, she draws you into cycles of perpetual rebirth and evolution that give the listener freedom to explore, feel, and grow. Thanks to her passion for mystical moods and quiet strength, this pop revelation is deeply enchanting without being cloying or saccharine.