Pale Fire is, in itself, a provocative album title. Sarah Assbring has, for four albums now, proven herself a clever and worthy songwriter—her deceptively gentle lyrics betray their abject truculence, like the best of the Brill Building stalwarts with which she’s often compared. But Pale Fire—that’s deep. A Nabokov multi-textual classic named for a Shakespeare passage that references creative passion. In Assbring’s version, she both exalts and laments in the opening track, chanting “Never grow tired of this pale, pale fire / never get out of this pale, pale fire.” Which, if anything, sounds like a two-pronged threat.
The studied El Perro del Mar fan will notice that, in this release, Assbring departs from her generally twee and mostly acoustic melodies in favor of house-music-influenced electronic production. In essence, under the mantle of her most pretentious album title yet (in a catalog of pretty brilliant titles), lies an earnest dance-pop album. “Hold Off The Dawn” is simply a breathless banger. “Home Is To Feel Like That” opens with a crisp synth buzz and reverb-heavy beat, with Assbring panting, “I’ve just got to see you.” Her trademark layered vocals are in dialogue; she becomes her own backup singers. It has the jarring and eerily comfortable effect of a deconstructed girl-group chanson. Her lead single “Walk On By,” another daringly repurposed title (with a likewise borrowed line from the lauded transgender documentary, Paris Is Burning), musically references a ’90s house jam all the way down to its gospel-y refrain, “Better not wonder / better not cry.”
Assbring has an effortless knack for poetic personification—see “Dog” and “The Sun Is An Old Friend” from previous releases—but here, perhaps continuing the transvestite theme, “I Was A Boy” shifts the metaphor simply to the opposite gender. It’s a beautiful confessional that almost doesn’t sound like one. Opening with the docile, innocent question, “Didn’t you know I was a boy before you came?” The disjointed chorale evolves from what might be a literal admission to a fanciful one: “I was born a sailor / dreamed what I was made of,” and later, “I was born a soldier / the sea rolled past my shoulder,” and finally: “I ruled land and water.” It’s a powerful depiction that ends up sounding more like a snippet from Homer’s Odyssey than merely a gay-rights anthem, while all the while remaining a feature of Assbring’s mastery: a humbling, devastating, quiet pop ballad.