I have an unfortunate tendency to take Sarah Lipstate's work for granted, as if it is somehow not enough that she is one of the most distinctive and inventive solo guitarists currently active. Part of that is her own fault, as she periodically produces work so beautiful and sublime that she transcends her role as guitarist and instead seems like one of the most compelling artists around. Those are the moments that I am always chasing and I have not experienced one since the title piece on 2013's No Dreams. Happily, Pink Sunset manages to floor me once more with "Deep Shelter." There are a few other memorable moments on this solid and likeable album as well, but not quite enough to disabuse me of my belief that Lipstate is gradually accumulating the material for an absolutely stunning greatest hits album at a rate of one fresh masterpiece every few years.
Pink Sunset boldly opens with the aforementioned "Deep Shelter," which is an absolutely lush and gorgeous swirl of dreampop heaven. Lipstate does absolutely everything right, chiseling a perfect gem of languorous shimmer, cool harmonized guitars, and delirious eruptions of striking melodies. While it admittedly sets the bar impossibly high for the rest of the album, it also sets a compellingly eclectic template that yields intermittently wonderful results. For one, Pink Sunset seems to be a compositional leap forward from the transitional-seeming Fantastic Planet, as Lipstate has now fully left the more abstract drone/soundscape aesthetic of her past behind in favor of more tightly structured "songs" with hooks. As "Deep Shelter" shows, she undeniably has an impressive talent in that regard, but there is also something deeper and stranger going on in these songs than mere skilled songcraft: Lipstate seems to be a preternaturally gifted sonic magpie, casually appropriating tropes from eclectic and more difficult genres and seamlessly working them into her own Romantic pop concoctions. Pink Sunset is littered with moments that sound like an alternate reality Cocteau Twins where Robin Guthrie was a massive prog, classical, and Iron Maiden fan. Similarly, Lipstate deftly avoids the navel-gazing, indulgence, and melancholy that dog so much material in this vein, replacing mopery with cool confidence, clarity, and focus. From a compositional standpoint, I love the tight structure, brisk pace, and complete lack of clutter, though a bit more snarl and grit would have been quite welcome.
"Deep Shelter" aside, Pink Sunset mostly feels like a gauzy, 4AD-damaged hall of mirrors, unfolding as a series of dreamy, delicate interludes that occasionally blossom into something with a bit more heft. While it is easy to forget that Lipstate is primarily a solo guitarist with an experimental bent when she is at her best and most transcendent, Sunset is still unsurprisingly populated with a number of guitar-centric vignettes. The title piece is one of the more striking works in that vein, as its gentle and pretty foundation of limpid arpeggios unexpectedly explodes into thick, distorted chords and a muted haze of dissonant and hallucinatory pedal-abuse. I personally prefer some of the more adventurous later pieces on the album, however–particularly "Trails and Trials," which sounds a lot like Emeralds covering the baroque pop of Kate Bush. Lipstate does an especially fine job with orchestration and balancing dynamics and textures that piece, embellishing her dense, distorted central melody with a vibrant backdrop of ringing arpeggios, complementary melodic motifs, and well-timed stabs of strings. The brief and ghostly "Corridors" is yet another minor classic, as a subtly muted and minor key motif unfolds beneath a spectral haze of harmonics or feedback. It has a very neo-classical feel, but intriguingly subverts that with a strong chorus and some wonderfully ragged-sounding string-bends. The best part is definitely the spectral haze though, as "Corridors" is a master class in nuanced coloration and shifting mood. The elegantly warped closer "Emergence" is yet another stand-out, weaving a woozy reverie from a disparate battery of alternately fat, artificial-sounding tones and rippling layers of fragility.
Trying to assess how Pink Sunset fits into Lipstate's oeuvre is a bit tricky, however. On the hand, it feels like a major creative breakthrough and "Deep Shelter" is easily one of the finest Noveller songs ever recorded (and probably one of the finest songs anyone at all will release in 2017). On the other hand, most of the album is merely pleasant and misstep-free and Lipstate's increasing shift towards meticulously crafted crystalline perfection is pulling her away from my personal aesthetic and closer to wider accessibility. That is great for Lipstate, as catering to my taste would ensure a life of poverty and obscurity, but I still prefer more abstract and immersive earlier albums such as Glacial Glow. That said, I am delighted that Lipstate is taking risks and restlessly evolving rather than repeating herself, especially since she is doing it so distinctively and with such an intuitive grasp of songcraft. As such, Pink Sunset is both essential for fans and an appealing gateway for the curious, as it is a Noveller album like no other.