Friday, March 1, 2019

Review: Léon • Léon

Musicians who grew up alongside the Internet have been known to be the industry rule-breakers. Ignoring traditional barriers to entry, they’ve gone directly to their listeners via free online platforms. But even if this generation is known to ignore the blueprints, there seems to be a predetermined path for those acts plucked at the height of their first viral blip: Go viral, benefit from a few celebrity shout-outs, sign a hasty record contract, release a few singles, tour the hell out of a small discography, stall out under a dying label relationship, and restart from square one. And that brings us to Swedish singer-songwriter Léon.

In the wake of an independent SoundCloud posting that boiled over in 2015, Léon signed a major label record contract, hit the festival circuit, and inflated her online listenership with a steady drip feed of short extended plays, amassing nearly six million monthly listeners on Spotify alone. More recently, she swapped the deal with Columbia Records for a business-savvy concept that has attracted more up-and-comers: Her own imprint under a major distributor. And after three years of chatter about a full-length record, she finally makes good on her promises with a proper introduction: Léon.

The record runs just half an hour long, but Léon's short statement commands attention. She's perhaps more resonant among a wider demographic than her contemporaries, with an inoffensive style that borrows the best from many decades of music and a voice that shares the smoky, full-bodied embrace of a dark roast coffee. Her ballads in particular resemble those from musicians who came shortly before her, namely early Adele or Amy Winehouse, and her tunes seem under-processed when stacked against most music today. In fact, she makes a power move when she plops a raw voice memo file in the middle of the record, delivering a strong performance on what is supposed to be a rough sketch of a song called "Cruel to Care."

Singles "Falling," "Baby Don't Talk," and "You And I" buoy record, pulling listeners back to the surface after they've been entranced by the digitized cathedral harmonies on "Pink" or swept up in the moment of "Better in the Dark." The record memorializes an on-again, off-again love affair, and "Falling" is the slinky, infectious cut that recognizes the instability outright and reveals that Léon, in all honesty, doesn't really seem to mind it. And while "You and I" closes the record with a suggestion that we've caught a short glimpse of Léon amid a cycle that will continue hereafter, the song's galloping gusto is a triumph: "You don't want to talk about it. You don't want to talk about you and I," she sings, surely with the satisfaction that she, in turn, substituted talking with the writing of an entire record.

Léon covers a wide range of emotions in a short time frame, but its namesake creator feels every one of them deeply. Each track so strongly commits itself to an up-swing or downfall in the relationship, from the consuming infatuation ("Lost Time") to the smoldering pit of regret and confusion ("What You Said"). Léon’s voice is vital to the record’s emotional intelligence – its midsection and lower tones, resonant and strong, and its higher register, unsteady and crackling – but her ability to capture succinct bits of feelings amid a constant state of flux makes the record a striking snapshot of her life, even if its tale is disconnected and far from complete.

Léon is available now under BMG Rights Management.

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