Chris McClenney says that Portrait in Two is his debut EP, but over the course of its eleven tracks, it feels a fully realized album. Either way, it’s an extraordinarily impressive document from an artist whose internal light refracts brightly over a smooth, skillful set of songs.
Portrait in Two starts off with “Consciousness (Intro)” sounds like the Maryland native’s inner monologue. It’s where he reminds himself “Don’t rush, this is all part of your vision, this is your time to grow” among shifting voices. It’s a good reminder, as ominous piano builds. Then they settle, before one more bit of self-advisement, “Don’t get caught in these headlines.” Then we’re off to the record’s first song.
“Headlines” begins with soft skitter stop beats and a climbing bassline. McClenney’s voice sounds both soothing and sensual, kind of like Prince in his more tender moments but with a self-awareness found on more insular Drake tracks. These comparisons go a little farther, especially on the album’s next song, “Otherside,” which atmospherics and tight drum machine beat sound like a distant cousin of “I Was Your Girlfriend,” but without the “Camille” voice. “I will see you when I see you on the otherside/When I feel you I conceal you holding deep inside,” he sings, but it’s not to anyone. It’s to himself, addressing his fears and doubts. “With a creative mind comes responsibility/The challenges of self-doubt/The joys of expression/The bouts of depression,” he sings in a later verse. They are some of the truest words you’ll ever hear about creativity and putting yourself out on the line.
What McClenney seems an expert in is his ability to synthesize sounds that convey great sensitivity over tropes that feel familiar but not overcooked. He doesn’t rap, but 808 beats show up over hazy synths on songs like “Run”, and while “Glide” has the same propulsion and bouncing bass as a song like “Uptown Funk,” without being so slick that you’d fall and hurt yourself on it. While there are sounds of the past, present and future (yeah, that Future too) all over this record, one of the most exciting moments comes at the end of the record.
“Gravity,” is more or less a jazzy piano ballad, with a bass that feels lifted from Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. “Your love is my gravity/when I’m lost you pull me back down,” he sings in an impossibly high falsetto. It’s the last thing you hear before the song seems to bleed into the end of the song’s original demo. It’s something that feels kind of perfect but with elements to make in imperfect. Why put that clip of the demo at the end? It feels pasted and incorrect, but aren’t all great works full of imperfections? But that’s what makes it so intriguing. Portrait in Two is a lot of things: It’s about the mind of a young artist who is processing influence, talent and his emotion into a revelatory group of songs. It feels honest and open, but somehow still feels like only one part of the picture. That’s the point. Time for him to study more styles and put them on canvas. We’re just in Chris McClenney’s early era right now.
- Brendan Hilliard, Obviate Media
This review was written by Brendan Hilliard, of Obviate Media. Obviate Media is a Chicago-based blog covering music and pop culture. Check them out, here: Obviate Media.