How potent storytelling and rich vocals make Lontalius' new EP, Side One, a must-listen

How potent storytelling and rich vocals make Lontalius' new EP, Side One, a must-listen

The New Zealand musician continues to emphasise the beauty of music with a striking new collection of tracks.

It’s been a big few years for New Zealand artist Lontalius.

His debut record, I’ll Forget 17, arrived in 2016, his Stateside label endearing him to audiences abroad. One such fan was Om’Mas Keith, one-third of West Coast neo-soul legends Sa-Ra, who co-wrote and produced Lontalius’ 2019 sophomore record, All I Have. That was a sturdy cosign from a man whose word often precedes greatness: through his extensive work on Channel Orange, Endless, Blonde and American Boyfriend, Keith has become a key player in a blossoming scene that’s helped define the better part of a decade.

If that vote of confidence brought forth his strongest work yet, Lontalius’ Side One – out last Friday – finds him returning to a lonesome singer-songwriter craft with renewed purpose. Gone are the rich arrangements of tracks like Swim and Optimistic, replaced instead with sly embellishments and veiled majesty, all centred around his charismatic vocal lines. The intimacy that exudes even his grandest work is amplified in this restraint, the songs landing like sound booth confessionals, each and every inflection heard and felt.

In some sense, Lontalius falls as an artist out of time. His brand of soft-spoken pop might be back in vogue, but more than a few moments on Side One are reminiscent of the early-2000s, the kind of tracks you might’ve heard on Scrubs. There’s a cinematic edge to the storytelling, imparted over fragile acoustic guitars and a slow-burning swell of distant bombast, that underscores the heft of Lontalius’ pen.

Faint opens on his solitary voice, the axis about which the record revolves. I said I’d let you in, but you figured I might be doing this all for show,” he croons, a history of indecision coming to the fore. Images of relationships as “wreckage” that leave the broken “bleeding in [their] wake” might cast emotional trials as grand theatrical processions, a tone that contrasts with his tender arrangements. The words adorn doubtful days and embattled nights with the intensity that they so often possess; the instrumentals tethering those feelings to the artist alone.

Lontalius’ want to “find a record now, to make sense of it all somehow” speaks to the power his music looks to impart, and Someone Will Be There For You might just be the record he’s searching for. “It takes a mess to learn a lesson,” he muses, pithy turns of phrase sketching about the edges of some since-doomed romance. There’s a heartfelt desperation to the way that the titular phrase becomes a mantra, Lontalius’ insistence floating over distant arena guitars befitting early Coldplay. It’s the loudest moment on the entire project, the lesson chasing the mess with emphasis. It’s a reminder that’s hard to communicate – ‘I meant it then, and I mean it now.’

Dialtone conjures memories of nights spent receiver to ear, confiding in some far-away friend. These are hours “spent alone,” that interconnectedness all at once real and illusory. It’s a sting felt in the widening gulf between Lontalius and his lover, an anonymous L.A. hopeful with more than a little luck. A deep relationship pushes up against dreams and aspirations, his star turn posing a difficult question: “what could you lose if you never came home?”

There’s a feeling that what might be lost has already slipped beyond reach, the question seldom asked but the answer plain to see. Dialtone, like the rest of the record, seems to hinge on the push-and-pull between immediate commitment and fickle impermanence, flipsides of the very same coin. There’s no real malice to these stories, but an affecting acknowledgement of what once was, a sentiment felt even as Lontalius’ voice strains under the weight of his cresting emotions. 

It’s what he doesn’t say that hits the hardest, inferences and allusions sketching arcs with hazy recollections. That might just be the most impressive facet of the project: beyond his emotive voice and the spacious arrangements that dress them, Lontalius’ storytelling slots into a familiar space, one that takes memories and moments and renders them our own. Images of football games and nights by the phone call to mind our own recollections, not quite identical but never too far from his telling. They’re markers of youth, signs we can all understand no matter how far off and foreign the images seem.

Imbued with the might of a coming-of-age film, Side One is as sensitive and astute as any meditation on the perils of modern love. The parties feel largely blameless, divided by circumstance and fate, the ways of the ever-complicating world, a tide on which we ebb and flow. If music truly can help explain this irrational existence, then Lontalius’ Side One might be the answer to its own question, a collection of considerate tunes that leave us feeling a little less lonely. 

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