by Michael McKinney
There’s an ongoing project that Gallant has called “In the Room.” He uses it to ‘pay tribute to and create something special’ with artists that have inspired him. It’s a remarkable little series, one that provides a window into his evolution on his own terms but feels intimate nevertheless, largely thanks to the little details: the close-cut camerawork that makes you feel like you’re at arms’ length from the vocalists, the way he swings his hands or head or entire body with every note he hits, the melodic or harmonic flourishes he tosses in, seemingly on a whim.
The second video in the series sees Gallant working with Seal, a clear stylistic influence on Gallant. Hearing them build off each other on the final chorus – Seal’s baritone rising in volume as Gallant offers accompaniment whose pitch is only matched by its energy – is a wonderful moment. When Seal says he’s the protégé’s “biggest fan,” Gallant can’t contain his grin. And Seal’s not his only fan: Gallant landed a Tonight Show performance in May of 2016, allowing him to put his mark on the small screen. And he gave it his all: in both videos, he seems possessed, like he can’t help but sing and dance and make the absolute most of any sort of spotlight he can grab ahold of.
The song that he performed both times was “Weight in Gold,” one of the singles from his debut album Ology. It’s a self-assured new-school R&B number, with a just-enough rhythm section giving way to immense synth slabs on the chorus. This give-and-take runs throughout the entire song, with each chorus getting bigger: wildly oscillating digital whirrs, backing vocals that threaten to overtake the main lines. But beyond that, it’s indicative of a lot of Ology’s sound: as far as contemporaries go, Gallant toes the line between Miguel’s Wildheart and dvsn’s SEPT 5TH, with the guitar-driven swagger of the former meeting the ultra-smooth synthetics of the latter to make something that plants one foot in 1991 and the other in 2016.
Even more than the instrumentation, though, it’s Gallant’s voice that defines his music. As his “In the Room” and Tonight Show performances drive home, the thing’s a cannonball. He likes to start out tracks with a quiet, pointed sort of delivery, with syllables either implied or sharply accented. Sometimes this sticks, and sometimes he’ll flip between that and a more full-throated delivery. He tends toward singing that feels big – a high-pitched wail, background vocals that are belted rather than crooned, melodic embellishments that add flair to already-technically-impressive lines. At times, this makes Ology feel like a triumph – the chorus on “Bone + Tissue,” with its an instrumental that would ordinarily be a climax rendered background to his falsetto, his voice going toe-to-toe with massive synth pulses and screaming saxophone on “Talking to Myself” without once backing down, “Weight in Gold” putting his gymnastics front-and-center.
His voice, however, proves to be a double-edged sword. While that style of vocal delivery makes for excellent moments, it turns wearying when used for an hour; a record can only climax so many times before its audience grows numb. This means that while many – even most – tracks here are decent-to-great when taken on their own terms, upon dedicated listening the album feels like a better source for playlists than something that works as a full-length project. It also means that some of the best tracks here are the ones where Gallant’s calmed down; if nothing else, they offer a reprieve from the alternatively (or, sometimes, simultaneously) energetic and overwrought tracks. “Miyazaki,” thus, may be the best thing on display: a slow, confident shuffle on the drums, woozy, dreamlike synths, a noodling solo that lets the beat speak for itself, a conciseness that reveals his faith in its ideas. Another contender is the follow-up, “Counting”: he holds his falsetto flourishes back for three minutes, making it meaningfully impactful when it lands, and the bridge is similarly important, separating the calm from the storm.
It’s worth noting, again, the communion Ology attempts to forge between the drum kit and drum machine. Contemporary R&B peers The Internet worked almost exclusively with “organic” sounds on 2015’s Ego Death, making beds of guitars, calm keyboards, and bass; in contrast, FKA twigs was decidedly alien on her M3LL155X EP from the same year: contorting her voice, drowning it under artificial groans, and leaning into queasy instrumentals powered by skittering drums reminiscent of Arca or Lotic. Gallant splits the difference here, making “modern”-sounding R&B – synth-loaded instrumentals, reverb-drenched singing, and pitch-shifted voices in the distance – that avoids sounding too modern via an abundance of guitar, saxophone, and piano grooves. This ultimately holds the release back, though: the best instrumentals here feature drum kits, cozy synthesizers, and a nuance that the too-prominent electronic walls of sound lack. It’s simply too easy, and too common, for those walls to turn into a synthetic mass with little to distinguish one part from another. This comes back to the issue his vocals bring up: an hour of this stuff can feel draining and monolithic rather than exciting and varied.
The lyrics, unfortunately, also suffer from this bloat. While they’re typically well-crafted, with an emphasis upon labyrinthine analogies, they’re still hard to care about: Gallant simply lacks the writing chops to make this much material worth tuning in for. It’s not a matter of subject matter, exactly – love, relationships, growing up, finding happiness; nor is it a question of lyrical quality. Instead, the lyrics simply feel unimportant, secondary to everything else going on. “Miyazaki” – again, possibly the best song here – is, lyrically, an uninteresting sex jam, but it sounds so good that it doesn’t matter. Even when his voice takes center stage, as it does on the verses of “Talking to Myself,” the tone he strikes – smooth yet pointed – is more interesting than anything he’s got to say. If there was less material here, maybe the lyrics wouldn’t feel like the same wash the instrumentals often do, a sonically pleasing blur that hits the same topics again and again. As it stands, the sheer quantity of similar, immediately-familiar themes, no matter the variants upon the details, renders excellent writing an inoffensive accompaniment whose peaks feel merely good rather than illuminating.
Ology, then, proves to be a solid effort from a relative newcomer to the R&B scene. But it ultimately feels anonymous: lyrics that often don’t feel important, a sonic identity that’s a decent-to-great flirtation with other artists’ ideas, and a focus on individual façades rather than overall structure result in a project which has painfully little depth. But Gallant’s got a lot going for him: between his high-profile fans, high-octane voice, and high hopes, he’s sure to keep going. And with his next project, maybe he’ll make something stellar. Ology certainly hints at it.
FCC: 11 (painkiller abuse, even if it’s metaphorical?)
Favorite Tracks: 9, 10, 13, 8, 5
RIYL: dvsn, The Internet, Miguel