Now, Now trade guitar rock and raw nerves for slick, left-of-center pop on a deceptively upbeat comeback album whose intense lyrics and unsettling sounds stay true to the duo’s emo roots.
“SGL” may have been the least expected of last summer’s pop bangers. A sumptuous and strange offering from Minnesota’s Now, Now, who’d gone quiet after releasing their second album, Threads, in 2012, the track heralded a reinvention. After losing guitarist Jess Abbott, the band seemed to have shed its emo bent: Where Now, Now’s music was once all exposed nerves and hushed confessions, “SGL” sounded bright, fun, and confident. As a duo, KC Dalager and Brad Hale layered Dalager’s airy vocals and brash lyrics over acoustic riffs and bouncy drum beats. The new track’s title—a cute abbreviation for “shotgun lover”—said it all.
It took Now, Now a year to follow up that release with their third full-length, Saved, although they did put out the fizzy, synth-powered “Yours” in the interim. On its surface, the album is exactly what its advance singles foretold: a lavishly produced collection of pop songs fueled by hedonism and desire. Hale backs up Dalager’s coo with a small army of synths and drum pads, churning out productions that feel soft, spacious, and mechanistic at once. Their ambition is obvious—glittery standout “MJ” nods to pop royalty, weaving references to his hits around the insistent hook, “I want it all.” It’s the second song on the album, following opener “SGL,” and Dalager sings those very same words on both tracks.
She isn’t a conventionally strong frontwoman—her melodies tend to hover within a narrow range, and she keeps her gaze lowered when performing, as if she’d rather be heard than seen. There’s a captivating quality to her voice, though, that has nothing to do with its force or dynamism. Dalager expels so much air with every note that each lyric sounds like a prolonged exhale. Often, her gulping breaths are left unedited, roughing up the glossy tracks and exposing the physical labor that goes into singing.
A handful of clever production tricks, like pitch-shifted vocals, add variety to her performance on the album. On “Saved,” the words “oh my god” are bent into a wobbly, repeated plea; on “AZ,” warped variations on the hook knock the song off-kilter once it hits the outro. More than just a trope of contemporary pop, this distortion feels purposely alienating. Hale’s odd flourishes mirror the loneliness that plagues Dalager on songs like “Window,” in which she describes waiting outside a distant lover’s house, hoping to be let in.
Even as it brings the flirtation and the fun, Saved doesn’t avoid dark sentiments. There’s an obsessive edge to Dalager’s bids for attention and affection that give the album a sense of danger. She often talks about her paramours in the language of religious devotion, equating physical love with salvation. Angels, demons, saints, and sinners pop up in her world as often as they do in scripture. “I’ve been drinking, baby/Won’t you come and save me/Like an angel waiting/I let you surround me,” she sings on “Powder,” a sweeping closer that vacillates between romance and violence. The album gets its name from an exclamation on the title track: “Oh my God, I’m saved!”
As it turns out, the band hasn’t lost its emo instincts—they’ve just been repurposed. Abstracted from the context of live guitar music, the genre’s lyrical intensity still fuels Now, Now’s digitally produced, left-of-center pop. Saved is faithful to Dalager and Hale’s roots but different—and good—enough to justify the six years the duo spent making it. “This feels like the first record where, if I was on the radio scanning channels, I’d be like, ‘What is that? I want to hear that,’” Dalager recently told an interviewer. She’s not the only one who will be tempted to listen. - Pitchfork