Even today, seventeen years after the end of the apartheid era and the economic and cultural embargoes that came with it, South Africa remains a culturally anonymous nation to most Americans. At best, we know its music through the vibrant harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the softly foreign lilt of ex-pat Dave Matthews’s accent. So when you first find out that singer/songwriter Chris Letcher hails from South Africa, his majestic international debut, Frieze, takes on a special importance. It becomes an unintended act of grand pop diplomacy, proof that there’s something going on down there that’s deserving of the world’s ears.
Of course, calling Letcher the new ambassador of South African pop music is a silly move, in that there’s nothing about Frieze that identifies it as a peculiarly South African record. The album sheds the African references and polyglot rock sound of Letcher’s beloved former band, Urban Creep, in favor of the wide-palette pop settings of American indie favorites Sufjan Stevens and Andrew Bird. Hooks emerge gently, cradled by broad swaths of guitar, piano, brass, recorder, synthesizer, harmonium, cello, electronics, and multilayered vocals. And despite Frieze‘s sonic bigness, its songs feel small and personal.
Letcher’s characters are just as imperfect and conflicted as real people. They feel pain, confuse love with sex, make bad decisions, leave each other, leave the earth. The poetic directness of Letcher’s lyrics makes gorgeous songs like “Special Agents” and “Misheen” all the more heartbreaking. But there is hope amidst the despair. Album highlight “Milk” steamrolls right through the desolation of lines like “You don’t love me you don’t love me so bad/ I must be mistaken, you’re the best that I had” with chugging, Arcade Fire abandon. On “I Was Awake I Could Not Move My Eyes,” Letcher creates his own version of Sufjan Stevens’s “Casimir Pulaski Day”(http://www.toolshed-media.com/ts/sufjan-stevens-casimir-pulaski-day.mp3): He turns some bad news about a friend’s collapsed lung into a sprightly waltz, backed by piano, plucked strings, and the clicking of a real heart/lung transplant machine.
On “Bad Shepherd,” Letcher sings “All broken things dream of repair” to a man whose father has just died. It’s a simple mantra of perseverance, and it has the ring of truth to it, because we all know suffering, and we all know what it’s like to desire healing. Frieze is a sad album, yes, but also tremendously comforting. Letcher has created a world that feels somehow more real than the one we’re living in, and when the album is over, our own world doesn’t feel quite the same.