by Niccolo Dante Porcello (@chromechompsky)
The first full-length album from IAN SWEET (formerly just IAN) is the kind of ode to youth that is simultaneously profoundly invigorating and emotionally stimulating; the record is both at odds with, and confronts the intricacies specific to any set of relationships that form in the late adolescent years.
Building off of 2014’s astonishing IAN SWEET, (originally titled IAN but revised and re-mastered as part of their joining the Hardly Art family) Shapeshifter finds Jilian Medford, Tim Cheney, and Damien Scalise expanding their tight, meandering compositions into songs that feel profoundly individualistic and whole, never settling on a predictable turn. Medford’s songwriting excels in the full-length format; perhaps the single flaw in IAN SWEET was that its 6 songs left a distinct want for more. Across Shapeshifter, Medford’s songs swirl and grow and flit in and out of the very particular space, both musically and lyrically, that is occupied by Excellent Songwriters. “Cactus Couch,” “#23,” and “Quietly Streaming,” come from such a distinctive space that they alone could define a record, and yet the other seven songs are so divined that listening to Shapeshifter is simply transformative. Indeed, it is rare that a record seems so wholly divined as Shapeshifter does; there are moments, like on the wavy “Shapeshifter,” that IAN SWEET sound so peculiar and so talented that it feels as if this record could not have actually come from the 20-somethings that it did. Who makes a record this good?
Part of attempting to understand how people relate is a seemingly inevitable confrontation of ones own agency in relationships. “#23,” is an ode to self-awareness delivered via genuine references to Space Jam and Jordan himself: “I Believe I Can Fly/ That was my song at karaoke last night/ I feel like Jordan in my Jordan’s”. Cheney and Scalise provide an ever-shifting foundation on top of which sit Medford’s uniquely emotive chord progressions and lilting vocal patterns. The initially delicate musical framework collapses around the 2:00 minute mark, and IAN SWEET proceeds to go as heavy as they can. “2soft2chew” features the stuttering swirl that defined IAN SWEET’s sound, before Cheney’s drumming becomes unhinged and spins the song into a far wilder realm. In this midst of this Medford yells: “do you find this funny/ my bloody knees/ I get so nervous and I grit my teeth/ they get so loose and fall out/ now I don’t have any.” It is the simple and visceral approach to lyricism that over and over again astonishes; it is confrontational, cathartic, and easy to empathize with. “Cactus Couch” uses the dissonance between perception and reality as modus; described is a literal dream about the predictable results of sitting on a cactus couch, but also the pain incurred when a relationship is only as reciprocal as the least reciprocal member: “you say it again/ that the freckles on my skin/ don’t exist if no ones lookin/ and you never paid attention/ to the smaller things/ like the marks on my body.” All of this intricacy is underscored by some of the best work from Cheney and Scalise; the last third of “Cactus Couch” falls into something of a slow honkytonk break, that then speeds up into a chaotic section, rendering the back half of “Cactus Couch” unlike any other in recent memory.
The aforementioned “Shapeshifter” is the middle point on the record, and as such does an excellent job of delineating sides A and B. It is the only song without a cohesive hook, and yet manages to be one of the catchiest. Vocal effects and guitar pedals wobble and caress Medford’s relentless repeating: “I have a way/ of loving/ too many things/ to take on/ just one shape.” Kicking off the B side, “Knife Knowing You” burns a slow circle, and the described experience is bleakly familiar to anyone who has found the wrong person: “I feel more alone/ Together than alone/ Alone together/ When we're alone together/ I feel more alone than ever.” The trio slows to a crawl as these lines hit at the end of “Knife Knowing You,” one of the defining moments on Shapeshifter.
On clear display throughout Shapeshifter is the beautiful boundary between the impassibly personal and the unquestionably accessible, all while surrounded by crisp, fraught rock. What Medford is saying feels universal, without any hint of the saccharine aftertaste that defines nominally similar sentiments in larger-scale pop music. To be sure, Shapeshifter is pop music in most all senses, but it manages to refrain from the rank and file plausibility of anything found on The Radio. Possibly, this is owed to the healthy quantity of ‘fuck you’ found in songs like the unbelievable “Quietly Streaming,” where Medford (and indeed all of IS) rip for an unimpeded 5 minutes. Even the most esoteric moments on this record are shattering, like the stuttering chorus/denouement on “Quietly Streaming”: “With your arms around/ I'm a table now/ 1234 legs above ground.”
It is tempting to see Shapeshifter as only a deeply personal record about relationships, but there is undeniably relatable imagery that runs throughout. Clearly manifest on “Slime Time Live” (“I’ll make a scene on the court/ when you don’t pass”) and outro “Pink Marker 2” (Got so excited looking at my things on a chair/ But I threw that plastic chair in the water/ And I dove after it/ Pushed all my weight down on it/ And all it did was resist”), there are multiple moments where Medford has the opportunity to turn inwards and instead heads for higher ground, finding a common thread among such seeming minutiae. Shapeshifter is a phenomenal record that, beyond having significant intrinsic meaning, is a rewarding listen. It somehow finds a unique middle zone between musical virtuosity and emotional maturity all while remaining a profoundly enjoyable experience.