by Josh Ginsberg (@world0fdarkness)
At first it might sound like the title of an epic DC Comics crossover event, but when you think on it a little longer, the title of Vagabon’s debut LP, Infinite Worlds, describes one of life’s most resonant tragedies. Humans are limited and lifted up by the various worlds we inhabit socially, economically, and artistically, and while we sometimes have license to travel to other worlds, there are some worlds that remain inaccessible. Conversely, there are also worlds that one cannot ever leave; their parameters rendered inescapable by the rigid social codes that dictate race, sexual politics and class. Beyond that, there are galaxies of mutually exclusive worlds that cannot be inhabited simultaneously—long sequences of realities that flicker out as soon as they’re passed over in favor of another. Life requires you to confront a series of either/or decisions, each of which splits into an uncountable multitude of trajectories that are ultimately unknowable, each one discrete from the others. It is really sad. The notion of infinite worlds that Vagabon articulates taps into Samuel R. Delany’s Afrofuturist visions of galaxies and realities that operate outside of Earth’s systems of limitation. In Afrofuturist works, entirely new paradigms of thought, identity and harmony are granted existence, uncloven by Eurocentric ideology, binary notions of gender and sexuality or other social and material conditions. Of course, the vivid imagination of Afrofuturism is not without its tragedy, either. What’s sadder than the realization that the best things you can dream up can never be?
The song on Infinite Worlds that is most in touch with the resonance of Vagabon’s album’s title is “Fear & Force,” which reflects on the desire to reclaim an opportunity that’s passed—to go back and change an answer that hindsight suggests Vagabon’s central force, singer and multi-instrumentalist Lætitia Tamko, may have gotten wrong the first time around. On opening track “The Embers,” Tamko describes feeling like a “small fish,” dwarfed by “shark[s]” that “[hate]” and “[eat]” everything; yet, Vagabon isn’t afraid to tell her wayward friend Freddie exactly what she wants. When Tamko’s voice issues its plea to Freddie on “Fear & Force” her desire to revise history and inhabit an alternative world is most tangible. When she sings “Freddie come back / I know you love where you are / but I think I changed my mind,” Tamko adds texture to Vagabon’s persona. She may be a “small fish,” but get her angry and she will loose your cat into the chaos of the outside world. Vagabon can “ruin the fun” with a phone call, she’ll “[wake] up before everyone / and [shuffle] around until [she wakes] everyone.” Across Infinite Worlds, Tamko makes her will felt. Her desire for the ability to change the trajectory of her life and Freddie’s in pursuit of a range of new experiences becomes one of the most compelling aspects of her character and gives flight to the album’s most powerful chorus. It unfurls from her mouth like a dove toward the skyline before it crashes into the invisible limits of the giant dome that contains its world.
Vagabon’s Infinite Worlds highlights the painful reality that possessing a will and actualizing one are two different things. When she sings “You say I will never change my ways” during the second verse, a trace of contempt is detectable in Tamko’s voice. She is insulted and frightened by the prospect that this assessment may be correct. As someone who identifies as a small fish, Tamko reveals that she shares the widespread anxiety of having her personal dream dashed by her personal hang-up. She sings “I would change my hair / I’d grow taller / I’d live everywhere that I love / I’d stand strong,” the weight of the apostrophes and tacked-on d’s that complicate the she speaks in, palpable. She would do change her hair and get taller and move away. She would have Freddie leave Vermont and return to New York. But she doesn’t. She stays in the world she’s in, left to wonder about the alternatives and what might’ve been if she’d felt differently when Freddie gave her the choice.
The most beautiful song on Infinite Worlds is the outlier. “Mal á L’aise” is built from slowly breaking waves of electronic chords and it is the only song that Tamko sings in her first language, French. A stark departure from the abrasive slabs of wiry guitar distortion that it’s sandwiched between, “Minneapolis,” and “100 Years,” “Mal á L’aise” is an amorphous bulb of warmth. Melodies swim through the tranquil surface of synthesizers like fishes. Drum machines flutter like sea anemone. Organs add a pastel orange to the sonic picture. “Mal á L’aise” translates directly to “ill at ease,” but also means “discomfort.” Tamko’s French lyrics lurk beneath the surface of the mix and describe a trip to the mountains and the discomfort she experiences there. Tamko reflects: “I was very uncomfortable. I was not sure what direction I wanted to take. You assured me being uncomfortable could do me good.” Indeed, the alienation that recurs throughout Vagabon’s debut LP is a big part of its charm and feels like it is responsible for some of the album’s nutritional value. Tamko describes feeling out of step, driving “in the same car, listening to the same music” as her friends but left to wonder “why I do not like it like the others,” and one gets to wondering what other worlds might feel a little more like home.
The vision of Lætitia Tamko that I behold in my mind’s eye when I listen to Infinite Worlds comes from Mooj Zadie’s striking video for “The Embers.” From “Mal á L’aise,” to the lyrics of “Alive and A Well,” Vagabon takes listeners to the strange blue neon of a pet store’s wall of aquariums—cold and quiet and strange but bursting with magnetic color. Vagabon depicts the experience of alienation in this otherworldly light throughout Infinite Worlds. Whether its chronicling a trip to the mountains, a ride on a bus or her “cold apartment floor / where we thought we’d stay in love,” Infinite Worlds is sad in a way that life is fundamentally sad. It is sad because life imposes limits on us; because we only get one chance to live; because we can’t keep the ones we love beside us all the time; because ultimately, we are all so very alien. We are all so very small.