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‘Glow’ Review: Alice Phoebe Lou Shines Bright

4.5 Stars

Album cover for Alice Phoebe Lou's "Glow."
Album cover for Alice Phoebe Lou's "Glow." By Courtesy of Alice Phoebe Lou
By Arik Katz, Contributing Writer

South African musician Alice Phoebe Lou defies expectations in both her songs and career. She rejected all the record deals that labels offered her after a 2014 TEDx performance, instead choosing to self-fund her work through independent concerts and street performances. “I don’t need security, any conventional form of success,” Lou said in a 2015 interview with European magazine Cafébabel. “It is a difficult route in some sense but it’s completely liberating in another.”

Lou released her third record “Glow” on March 19, marking her first foray into writing songs about love, a topic she had previously avoided. In doing so, she has created her most honest and emotive work — a spellbinding record that beautifully depicts love in all its complexities.

“Only When I,” the album’s haunting opener, begins with a striking assertion: “You didn’t teach me, I taught myself through you.” Although the self-assured statement initially appears to proclaim independence from a past relationship, it soon becomes clear that the reality of healing from a former flame isn’t so straightforward. “Sometimes it feels like I could give it all up to be held by you / But that's not all the time,” Lou croons over a tender electric piano. “Only when I can't breathe / Only when I wanna believe / Only when it's late at night / Only when I don't feel right.” As Lou acknowledges this, a steady drum beat and a cascading electronic harp (courtesy of a vintage 1981 Suzuki Omnichord) join in, intensifying her raw confessions. Several tracks touch on the inevitable pain of love, such as the strikingly intimate “How to Get out Of Love.” “I think I need your words to feel like daggers in this love / For only then could I give up the hope in my heart,” she sings softly, an eerie contrast with the sweet guitar hovering below her voice. But she folds these darker lines in with more hopeful ones devoted to the potential for personal development arising from this pain. “Mother’s Eyes” delves into this growth: “I catch my eye in the mirror and smile back at myself / Openеd up some boxes that are fillеd with pieces of me / All of those years trying to squeeze into boxes that didn't fit all of me.”

These juxtapositions of confident declarations of growth with vulnerable admissions of pain demonstrate Lou’s recognition of the double-edged nature of love. In divulging both the beautiful and the painful aspects of her experiences, Lou lays her heart bare, opening herself up to the listener and allowing them to connect with the music on a deeper level.

The album’s many contradictions become evident from just a glance at the tracklist, which includes a song called “Heavy / / Light As Air.” “I want nothing / I want it all now,” Lou sings on the second single “Dirty Mouth,” a punk-inspired song that drives forward with incredible energy. “Glow,” the delightfully upbeat title track, includes another apparent paradox: “I am smiling, I am screaming.” She acknowledges even more conflicting elements of love in “Mother’s Eyes”: “I want you, but I don't want you to be mine / Feels like the paradox of my life.” By juxtaposing so many clashing feelings and ideas in her lyrics, Lou demonstrates her appreciation of love and all the heartache that accompanies it, as a multifaceted experience that cannot be boiled down to positive or negative descriptions.

Although Lou’s lush lyricism portrays her central theme of love as complex, one thing is crystal clear: Her sound has never felt so confident. “My love affair with recording to tape & the analogue process started this year,” she wrote on her website. “I couldn't wait to create an analogue album.” Her use of this technique has created a gorgeous amalgamation, merging themes of the present with sounds of the past. By using “all the oldest mics, amps & gear,” she has crafted a vastly different record from her mesmerizing second album “Paper Castles.” Befitting its recording process, “Glow” sounds vintage and distinctly nocturnal, like a warm blanket late at night. One listen to the first single “Dusk” demonstrates this, with smooth saxes playing a catchy motif over electric keys comping a steady rhythm. Although Lou employs similar jazz chords and songwriting techniques on both records, the sound of “Glow” couldn’t be more distinct. This suits Lou’s development as a songwriter, as she has allowed herself to open up and pour her “most personal feelings, experiences & realisations into it.” Just as the album art suggests, “Glow” represents an artist at her most vulnerable. A gorgeous and introspective exploration of the complexities of love, “Glow” leaves one thing clear: Alice Phoebe Lou is a force to be reckoned with.

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