File this under concerts I regret missing: a couple of weeks ago, Gordi played a show at Archestratus, a terrific cookbook store and cafe a few blocks from where I live. Footage I’ve seen from it features Sophie Payten–the Australian musician for whom Gordi is her preferred name for performance–energetically playing a keyboard and singing to the gathered crowd. I’ve been listening to Reservoir, Gordi’s debut, a lot over the past few months, and seeing footage of a show at what could accurately be called an intimate venue is almost surprising. But then, that seeming imbalance settled out inside my head: the scale of this record is, after all, an ambiguous one, equally suited to spaces small and massive. It’s an album that repeatedly riffs on other creative disciplines, a pop record that sounds massive at times and surreally specific in others.
Reservoir is a record that frequently booms, with drumming that rattles the low end and seems designed to confer a touch of the majestic to a home stereo system. That can be heard near the end of “Bitter End” and “Something Like This,” the song that closes out Reservoir. But, like much of the album, that scale is utilized to knowingly contradictory ends. “On My Side,” for instance, falls into the time-honored tradition of wedding an anthemic backbeat to lyrics that explore contradiction. “And I know/ That I can’t, I won’t, I’ll tell you that I don’t/ But I need you on my side,” she sings. It’s a remarkably catchy album; Payten has a clear voice, a solid range, and a knack for subtly memorable hooks. But it’s also one that abounds with knowing contradiction and ambiguity–one of the things that ultimately helps make it memorable.
There are signs here that Gordi’s music is drawing inspiration from other artistic disciplines. “I’d paint a picture for you here/ But I would sooner disappear,” she sings on “On My Side.” And later, on “I’m Done,” singing in a much more unadorned mode, she engages in a particularly devastating put-down for anyone with an interest in all things literary—namely, she compares someone who she’s excised from her life to something particularly wretched: namely, mediocre writing: “It feels good to say I’m done with you/ Done with empty prose and verse.”
Gordi’s evocation of literary matters takes a different form on the album as well. Two songs into Reservoir, and we arrive at a song called “All the Light We Cannot See.” Those with a penchant for recent and acclaimed works of literary fiction will probably note that it shares a title with Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. In an article on his website, Doerr wrote that “the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.”
This apparent nod to Doerr’s novel is another indication that we’re living in a golden age of literary references in pop music. (I’m using a decidedly broad definition of “pop” here, for the record.) Chastity Belt’s “Drone,” from 2015’s Time to Go Home, included lyrics that referenced Sheila Heti’s acclaimed work of autofiction, How Should a Person Be? Steve Gunn has cited Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost as an influence on his 2016 album Eyes on the Lines. And Beyoncé Knowles has referenced the work of Warsan Shire and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her own work, raising the profile of both along the way, and giving bookstores and book clubs everywhere a boost.
The paradoxical nature of Doerr’s observation about vision and the range of possibilities seems entirely of a piece with Gordi’s songwriting, which sometimes pushes and pulls against itself, embracing the apparent paradoxes that can be summoned with language. In other words, it’s the opposite of the “empty prose and verse” that she so decries halfway through the record. Also relevant here: her closing tell-off in the same song: “So many days so many ways that I could’ve said to you/ Oh boy I’m done.” Here, too, is that sense of possibility and that range of expression.
Alongside those questions of language are similarly-phrased lyrical meditations on understanding. Variations on the phrase “I know” recur throughout the album, one of the few consistent motifs on a record that consciously utilizes a panoply of styles. On “Aeon,” she sings, “But what’s it worth if I can’t listen/ What’s it worth if you don’t try and understand/ So what if I just feel a little deeper/ For now at least try and understand.” And that, in itself, is a sentiment echoed and seconded in the album’s final song, “Something Like This.” Here, that sense of understanding and knowledge returns, in a markedly visceral way:
“I got burned
Where I stand
But it was harder then than now to understand
How to bleed until you’re empty, how to open what is full
But I hope I know when I am capable of loving you”
The literary nods on Gordi’s album are a welcome dialogue with another creative discipline and creative work. But to delve more deeply, it seems as though she has created a pop record that incorporates a sort of meta-literary analysis even as it embraces the spectrum of musical options available for a pop record in 2017. It’s an energizing, complex, dizzying work, and its quiet depths reflect and embrace the literary current that runs through it.
Tobias Carroll frequently writes about books, music, and pop culture for a variety of publications. He is the author of the books Reel and Transitory, and can be found on Twitter as @TobiasCarroll.