While still in college, Rostam Batmanglij was experimenting with the pop and R&B possibilities of Auto-Tune—this was before T-Pain blew up, before 808s and Heartbreak, and way before Bon Iver’s dalliances with the vocal smearing effect. As the producer and musical leader behind Vampire Weekend, he spearheaded a nobrow sound that cheerfully destroyed barriers between genres and borders. Working behind the scenes with chart toppers like Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen over the last few years, he added some idiosyncratic warmth to their songs, further collapsing bygone concepts of mainstream and underground. His personal identity as a queer, first-generation Iranian-American immigrant who came up through the largely straight and white world of indie rock only adds to his rep as a disruptive force for good. For the last decade, he’s offered signposts for artfully postmodern pop music, beckoning others to follow. This is why current vanguards Frank Ocean and Solange invited him to contribute to their most recent game-flipping albums. Rostam is a name you can trust. On Half-Light, that name is front and center for the first time.
Naturally, the biggest difference between this album and what’s come before is Rostam’s voice. Though he’s an undisputed studio genius, the 33-year-old hasn’t taken up lead vocals on that many recordings thus far. And in contrast to many of the bold and exacting singers he’s previously written with, Rostam’s delivery is often hushed, quivering, devastatingly intimate. There’s a mumbling quality to it that can be charming or cloying—a millennial whoop of one that is at times reminiscent of Chris Martin’s guileless early days. But he uses this tentativeness to his advantage on the twinkling “I Will See You Again” and the album’s ambling title track, where his vocals gingerly stretch out like a morning yawn.
Such a bleary image seems appropriate, since much of Half-Light takes place in a liminal space between night and day, dreams and reality, sex and love, a breakup and what’s next. Rostam invokes various levels of sunlight streaming into apartment windows throughout the record, and it often sounds like he’s not singing to a person, exactly, but rather the formless, dark silhouette of a person who’s just left the room. “Lo and behold, you were here now you’re gone,” he laments on “EOS,” a track that floats and surges like an arena anthem turned inside-out.
As he looks back musically, employing the harpsichord sixteenth notes, string arrangements, and hand-drum rhythms that have become his signature, along with some Middle Eastern flourishes he was exposed to as a child, he’s also remembering certain moments from his personal history. A dramatic autumn morning on 14th Street. Reading The New Yorker in bed while watching a partner paint. Holding someone close while considering the vastness of the ocean. His descriptions of these flashbacks can be elliptical, at times to the point of meaninglessness. But at their best, as on the chugging “Bike Dream,” a song about the bittersweet impossibilities of love, Rostam’s words are just abstract enough, like our most lasting memories.
The album’s naked vulnerabilities, second-guesses, pep talks, coming-of-age tales, and fleeting glimpses of heartache lead up to its final full song, “Gwan.” This is where Rostam moves into the present, offering the kind of wisdom and relief that only time can provide. “Sometimes I laugh when I think about how you know me,” he sings. He’s likely talking about a loved one, but the line could also apply to those who’ve followed his work so far, who got to the end of this worn photobook of an album along with him. Half-Light traces where he’s been so far, a typical theme for any solo debut. This is as understandable as it is slightly frustrating. Because all along, Rostam has never settled for anything close to typical.
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