Laurel Halo is a curious species of musician. Even her birth name, Ina Cube, sounds like she teleported to our world from a sci-fi classic like Neuromancer. But, unlike, say, Grimes, there’s nothing outwardly futurist about Laurel Halo’s physical presence—her long, maple-colored hair and unassuming beauty catch her in photographs looking more like a yellowing photo of your mom from 1976. It’s exactly this tearing of the fabric between the past and the present that makes her a compelling artist.
Her two prominent EPs have led listeners down a distinctive path. 2010’s King Felix consisted primarily of crystalline, synth architecture behind which her piercing soprano emanated as if reverberating through an aluminum hallway. The prickly beats and thrumming melodies were the forefront; her lyrics were indistinguishable, sweetly sung, but her voice did little more than provide its own counter melody. In 2011’s Hour Logic, even these vocals largely vanished. This was a full-on ambient electronic album, trembling and oscillating in its breathlessness, but never quite establishing much more than a mood. As if to complete a trilogy, her anticipated inaugural full-length, Quarantine, switches things up completely and takes on a more direct singer/songwriter tone—if that singer swaps out their piano and acoustic guitar for a few panels of synthesizers and buzzing loops.
There’s still an eerie distortion saturating Halo’s vocals, as has become her trademark. But the prominence of her singing here is almost jarring, raw, practically emotive, and this is an unexpected and slightly discomforting sensation coming from an artist who has, until this point, portrayed herself as a mechanical part of her music more than a warm-blooded personality. Tracks like “Years” are so minimalist in their instrumentation and voice-heavy (but in an odd, warped way) in what seems to be a cryptic break-up song, it becomes clear that the intimacy in the songwriting here is perhaps, for Halo, unprecedented. Unsurprisingly, however, it’s beautiful.
Songs like “Thaw,” despite opening with hissing feedback, launch into a delicate, upbeat ballad with a refrain that’s positively uplifting. “MK Ultra,” more than anything, hearkens back to her previous work, with its bright kinetic melodies, but her monotone, layered vocals offset the danceability of the track. Songs like “Carcass” sound as if they could be a holdover from the immortal psychedelic pop of a group like Silver Apples—fluid, robotic, and incantatory all at once.
While the futurism still appears in the sheer construction of Halo’s songs, the space on this album is not quasars and hyperdrive as much as it is physical: loneliness and emotional isolation. At the end of this meandering journey through earnest ballads and instrumental noise-infected interludes, the closer, “Light and Space,” surfaces almost out of nowhere as a perfect, lilting, self-contained love song, concluding the album on a sustained note of radiance, but the kind that’s diminished if you haven’t sat through a complete listen.