By Gareth Watkins
CALGARY — There are things you ‘simply don’t do’ when you have unlimited artistic freedom. You don’t put yourself on your album covers because it’s all about the music. You don’t put too much of yourself in the lyrics and you hand-wave away questions about them by saying that they’re “up for interpretation.” You don’t, for the love of God and everything holy, go and work with Urban Outfitters or voice an imaginary DJ in a Grand Theft Auto game. You don’t collaborate with Levi’s Jeans, remix Lady Gaga or license your music to New York Fashion Week runway shows. You don’t contribute the standout track of your new album to a schmaltzy teen romance movie (Paper Towns, starring Cara Delevingne and Nat Wolff, is in theatres now). You’re an artist, you’re free to do anything those anonymous Internet commentators and record company committees approve of.
Nobody told Twin Shadow, a.k.a. George Lewis Jr., these unspoken “rules,” or perhaps he doesn’t give a proverbial shit because he is an artist. He slips between the worlds of indie and pop so effortlessly he’s carved out a unique, difficult place for himself in modern music. It feels strange to refer to somebody as clearly on the inside of popular culture as Lewis as an “outsider,” even when his biker jackets and (now abandoned) Morrissey croon ‘n’ quiff scream it, but Lewis is alone. He seems to want it all, commercial success and artistic integrity, either because of an outsize ego (as his critics allege) or because he’s far enough removed to be able to ask “why can’t pop be art? Why can’t art be commercial?”
His newest release, Eclipse, has divided fans and critics: some hail it as the birth of the true Twin Shadow, others as evidence of stadium-filling ambitions that the 31-year-old Los Angeleno doesn’t have the chops to fulfil. A two-word term we all agreed to stop using haunts the record: ‘selling out.’ Lewis himself, a man of few words, shrugs off criticism of Eclipse, saying, “Everything’s valid. Everything’s a good idea and everything’s a bad idea.”
Lewis was born in the Dominican Republic, moving to Miami when he was seven years old. Repeated break-ins forced the Lewis family to relocate to Florida’s more sedate West Coast, a man-made island near Tampa. Artificial islands, real or metaphorical, are a theme that will recur in Lewis’s life. While Miami was a melting pot of cultures from all over the Caribbean, Lewis felt alone in his new home and sought solace in the church choir. He describes his family getting into records late and having only a few albums in the house, Paul Simon’s 1986 studio album Graceland being a stand-out. By 2000 he moved to Boston, starting a few punk bands that fell apart due to the limitations of what Lewis refers to as the “democratic processes” of having four or five people all equally contribute to a singular work of art and “how ideas get watered down because of constant compromise.”
In New York he founded Twin Shadow, but he has since left the city for Los Angeles.
Fast-forward to now, Lewis is three albums into his career and has made the leap from large but still nominally ‘indie’ label 4AD to Warner Bros. Records.
Eclipse goes all out on Lewis’s R’n’B influences, sounding at times like contemporary artists The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, other times like the classic artists of the ‘80s and ’90s: the aforementioned Boyz II Men or Harlem ‘New Jack Swing’ artist Keith Sweat. There’s little to swing to on Eclipse though. Take “To The Top,” the song featured prominently on the Paper Towns film trailer: it’s a ballad that’s powerful not only in its emotional heft but in its sheer intensity, the way Meatloaf would belt them out, the way Michael Jackson, who Lewis cites as a formative influence, would wail on tracks like “Earth Song.”
Earlier songs were less grandiose on first listen but in terms of ambition Lewis’s work has always been huge, monolithic. You get the definite impression from listening from the glacial cool of Forget (2010) through the searing, snarling Confess (2012) and the overblown, polished Eclipse that Lewis is mining the sounds of his childhood, everything he strained to listen to on the car radio as his parents talked about things that six-year-old George had no hope of understanding. And it’s not always the bands that have since been rehabilitated: it can be Prince, Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds.
Thematically, Forget is filled with love songs, with a particular focus on young love. This is love as depicted in John Hughes movies, with a synth-heavy soundtrack to match. Producer Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear makes everything cold and distant, marrying one side of the Reagan era, the optimistic, romantic pop, to the darker counterpoint recorded by everyone who missed out on ‘Morning in America.’
Its follow-up, Confess, was written amidst a dark period in Lewis’s life in which he “didn’t feel connected to anything…I was questioning everything, my friends, relationships, but I was hardest on myself.”
Lewis produced the record himself and his guitar work can be heard on many tracks (either because of an injury to his hand in a bus crash earlier this year or, as he says, because he’s moving in a guitar-free direction he is now solely a vocalist). The album has an expanded palette but a tighter focus: huge ballads and driving monster rock hits (“Five Seconds” being a particular stand-out). Bruce Springsteen is a major influence, but his tales of working-class resilience are replaced with bitter introspection. Lewis does not go easy on himself and while the title of Forget is ironic considering the nostalgia on show, there’s confession all over this record, albeit confession from somebody who doesn’t quite believe that they can be absolved. Listen to a line from “You Call Me On:” ‘I don’t give a damn about your dreams/ A whole world that is falling at the seams/Cuz that’s what it’s supposed to do.’
This is not a happy record, recorded as it was after two years on the road that took him away from friends and made sustaining a relationship impossible.
“Just like the crashing waves we had seen in movies, we would dive and swerve down hills like we were carving out paths in the old blue and white surface. We cried out like dogs. And the boy with the loneliest howl, the most gut-turning call was Georgie.”
— From The Night of the Silver Sun by George Lewis Jr. a.k.a. Twin Shadow
The third in his discography was delivered in March via Eclipse. Despite the seeming grab for fame (one reviewer over at No Ripcord dismissed the album as a “No Jacket Required mid-career turnaround without the commercial fanfare”), Lewis is happy where he is.
“It’s not like in 2010 I became Ariana Grande-level famous. It’s a very strange thing, but there’s nothing better than knowing that tomorrow I have to wake up and make music.”
In our culture, riddled as it is with double standards and some very ugly presuppositions concerning race, it should be easy for George Lewis Jr. to be thought of as cool. Frankly, he’s a good-looking guy dressed in old-school biker leathers. At the same time, his combination of commercial leanings and personal idiosyncrasies make him a difficult proposition. It’s like nobody has told him that being a R’n’B megastar in 2015 means sanding off your rough edges (unless you’re Chris Brown, who still inexplicably has a legion of vocal fans). Take the video for Eclipse track “I’m Ready”: Lewis grinding up on a model on the front of Dodge Ram 1500, looking down on L.A, all very standard stuff, then he’s selling what looks like a rainbow hologram version of Cloud Strife’s Buster Sword from Final Fantasy VII to arms dealers. The tonal shift is as jarring as that from his early albums to Eclipse. He’s no stranger to geek culture: aside from the starring role in Grand Theft Auto V he’s wrote a sci-fi novel, The Night of the Silver Sun, which he told Pitchfork that it revolves around “a motorcycle gang in the future.” Although it has yet to be published and may never be available for publication consumption, the post-apocalyptic novel inspired the videos of the singles from Confess. The video for “Five Seconds” is directly culled from those writings, depicting a lone motorcyclist fleeing from a rampaging gang. He is eventually attacked and joined in a brawl by a man who could be interpreted as a friend or lover; in follow-up video “Patient” the nature of their relationship remains unclear.
“I’ve never felt part of any one group,” Lewis says, perhaps allegorically explaining the ambiguity of his art and imagery. “And at times I’ve pushed against being identified with a certain group of people. In a way I’m on my own island and I don’t want to be part of a group, and that’s the way it’s always been: even when I was a kid I felt shipwrecked from everyone else.”
Developing his own understanding of music in isolation has led the artist who used to sound like Morrisey and Bruce Springsteen to assert that piano house and commercial R’n’B are just as important. For better or worse, for all the stadium-shattering choruses and leather jackets, that shipwrecked kid, the boy with the loneliest howl, is all over Twin Shadow’s music, floating on his own artificial island.
See Twin Shadow on August 28th at the Starlite Room in Edmonton or on August 29th at SAIT’s The Gateway in Calgary. He also performs in Saskatoon on August 31st at O’Brian’s Event Centre and in Winnipeg on September 2nd at the Garrick Centre.AB, Alberta, Gateway, Gateway at SAIT, O'Brian's Event Centre, Starlite Room, The Garrick, Twin Shadow