Pleasurable pain




Blue Flowers

4 stars

London newcomer Will Westerman, who goes by his family name, makes music that sounds like it is written so effortlessly, it belies a sea of insecurities which prop up his craft.

"I spend a lot of time analysing what's going on, sometimes to my detriment. Trying to make sense of things that often I can't make sense of," he recently said in an interview.

This has been true of his home run of singles, particularly his best track so far, Confirmation, where he nails the sadomasochistic creative process: "Good job, pinhead, so happy you were born."

That's why his music unnerves even as it soothes.

His latest single, Edison, exemplifies the contrarian counterpoint between ease and workmanship. To achieve that masterful level of easiness, one must sculpt, worry, chip away, day in and day out.

"Still, they say these light-bulb moments rarely come," he confesses over a platter of thinly sliced riffs and emollient synths. The song is peppered with self-deprecating humour: "I read Baldwin every morning/At least I pretend to, isn't that the same?"

The phrases are repeated, revealing an obsessive-compulsive tendency to seek, well, affirmation. The question is asked, but no answer is forthcoming. You laugh. You ache. Accordingly, he is trying to crack "the subject of absolute power" - political or creative, or both, I cannot say.

The gentle accruement of self-doubt eats away at his confidence, while the music remains unflappable, sliding along subtly morphing hooks that sound somewhat like the music of his heroes Steely Dan, but not really.

It is that slight disjuncture, between hardscrabble existence and sleek ambition and between dream and reality check. It propels his music forward, even as it tips its hat at 1970s/1980s musical forebears.

Easy Money, the B-side to Edison, provides further evidence of his exacting self-criticism. "It's easy money/So why you worry?" he asks, like a modern-day Hamlet who knows there is an easier way out if he compromises.

A lo-fi synth loops in the background as he sings in a lower register than his normal voice: "I don't doubt somebody's working harder."

The music echoes the circular argument. Synths are at first placid, lulling you into a state of hedonism, as if you were Cleopatra reclining on a barge cruising down the Nile.

"Ornament my body/Cause I like how it makes me feel," he coos, as the music goes down like a downtempo number.

Midway, something's changed. Guitars get scratchier, more gnarled. Drums hit harder. "Worry makes you ill," he sings, knowingly, flipping between sell-out and conscience.

Pain is pleasurable after all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2018, with the headline 'Pleasurable pain'. Print Edition | Subscribe