I have many issues with what passes for pop music in the year 2014: the brazen artifice of it, the lack of lyrical and melodic imagination typically on display, and the shrunken aural context (pop music in the ’10s more or less refuses to mix well with anything but other pop music from the ’10s), to name a few pet peeves. On top of this, I remain gobsmacked by the unironic embrace of pop sheen and flow by a significant segment of ’10s hipsters. Perhaps this is the ultimate consequence of shifting from ownership to (mostly) free access: the audience is so little invested in the end product that the impetus for listening becomes merely to locate something familiar and diverting, for just those three or four minutes, rather than something to stake the depth of your identity on.
Well, there’s no settling any of this while we’re still in the middle of our grand digital transition. But, in the meantime, here: “Oh Baby” is unabashed pop. It even, I think, features, albeit briefly, some Auto-Tune. And yet there is something in here, musically, that I don’t think you hear in standard-issue 2014 pop music. On the one hand it’s a texture thing—the way the musician who calls himself Julius lets his song unspool with a rich sense of space and time. Rather than the flat, compressed sound of music that’s been processed and layered within inches of its life, “Oh Baby” offers up something that appears, aurally, to straddle the digital and analog worlds. The unhurried drumbeats that provide the song’s backbone may be electronic, may be organic, may be a mix of both, but in any case they feel musical rather than logistical, with a sense of three-dimensional space rather than manipulated puzzle pieces. Likewise the backing vocals that press into the mix at 1:40: regardless of how manipulated, or not, they feel fueled by breath, they too seem to be taking up organic space.
But the thing that really won me over are the chords. However many times I listen I am in thrall to the grace of the flowing chord pattern that Julius introduces when the song first moves beyond the percussive accompaniment (beginning at 0:44). These are not showy, anthemic chords, but the elusive progression from 0:44 to 0:47 to 0:49 moves with a quiet grandeur one might usefully describe as orchestral. And here is where it merits mention that Julius is himself a refugee from the classical academy, a self-professed “weirdo classical prodigy” who only recently began listening to pop music. Once upon a time, pop stars veered into classical music to give their careers cultural heft; nowadays we may be seeing the opposite. Yes, Julius now chooses to operate in the seemingly constrained world of fluffy pop (could there be a title with any less contextual weight than “Oh Baby”?), but the song seems also, somehow, to be straining at a new way of mining depth in the musical language many if not most coming-of-age adults prefer to be speaking right now. Even lyrically the song may be presenting a bit more than it lets on; the recurring line “I’d give the world/To believe what I thought I felt” is no mere throwaway, as one example.
Released last month, “Oh Baby” is the second song Julius has recorded; it was produced by Benny Cassette, who has worked with Kanye West. You can download above, as usual, or visit his SoundCloud page, where you can also hear his first song, along with a more recently posted remix/mashup.