Soft Fall, the second full length release from Philadelphia shoegazers Sun Airway, is a cascading triumph of aching yearning and impressionistic electronic dreampop that sees frontman/writer/producer Jon Barthmus transcend and even supersede his influences and nearest comparisons. Jettisoning the chiming and beautifully droning guitars of their debut album Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier and instead seamlessly incorporating orchestral strings into slightly melancholy electronic music, Barthmus has created a remarkably appealing album that instantly lends itself to repeated listens, without any trace of saccharine hokum.
A lot of that is down to the vocals of Sun Airway guru Barthmus, whose vocals call to mind The National's Matt Berninger or an in key Julian Casablancas. Woven between ambient instrumentals, there's a running conversation between Barthmus and the object of his desire that spans the entirety of Soft Fall from the lead single "Closer" to the ecstatic finale "Over My Head;" with reproach ("New Movements"), aching longing ("Laketop Swimmers," "Soft Fall"), and disagreement over music taste ("Black Noise") in between. The egregiously "adult" subject matter of Soft Fall also provides a nice and distinct contrast between Barthmus and M83's Anthony Gonzalez; while comparisons are inevitable, Soft Airway seems to find it's own way.
Jon Barthmus also deserves credit for credibly and unpretentiously pulling off the fusion of orchestral strings with electronic pop. That could have terribly wrong but Barthmus exhibits excellent taste with regards to how he deploys them and the tones he uses, which are never excessively sweet. The strings are very much of the Claire Fischer school and on more than one occasion the album called to mind mid 80's Prince. In many regards, Soft Fall as an album operates in that space, where beauty and sadness coexist, and perfection is the goal. This is not to say that Prince always delivered those goods in the mid 80's or that this is a perfect album, but it should be noted that Prince frequently did deliver those goods (in the mid 80's), and Soft Fall comes close enough that it feels perfect, and frankly, that's good enough for me.
It also helps that Soft Fall closes with a song that very much reminded me of "Adore" (the epic finale to Prince's 1987 epic Sign O The Times*), the soaring and gorgeous "Over My Head." It's such a beautiful and excellent coda that it almost feels like cheating; that Barthmus guaranteed decent reviews for Soft Fall because the album's finale is a genuine doozy. Soft Fall is genuine ear candy of the highest order that trades crass sweetness for beautiful melancholy that's almost sexy (almost; this is indie we're talking about), and with it Sun Airway consciously leaves the psychedelic experimentation to Animal Collective, fantasy and grandeur to M83 and the 80's revivalism to Neon Indian, and instead focuses on human connection, love, and getting some.
* I desperately wanted to write "your life is woefully incomplete if you've never head "Adore" and share a link to the song but Prince has scrubbed himself and his music completely off of the Internet, and that's just fair to you. If you know somebody who's got Sign O The Times, beg them to hook you up. Also, for my part, Prince and Warner Brothers need to kiss, make up, and start remastering and re-releasing Prince's first fifteen albums... post haste. Dearly beloved, that those records are just languishing, unloved by Warners or Prince, is a damn shame.