This latest release from the prolific claire rousay has been deservedly getting quite a lot of attention, as it can reasonably be called a creative breakthrough of sorts. At the very least, a softer focus documents an especially accessible and melodic strain of rousay's singular (if understated) vision. Obviously, most of the credit for that goes to rousay herself, as her work has always been on a upward trajectory, but this album was also significantly influenced by the involvement of visual artist Dani Toral, who is the creative force behind the album's non-musical content (cover art, videos, song titles, album title, etc.). While the artists' two visions seamlessly combine beautifully into one, some of the best parts as a pure listening experience involve the participation of less-central contributors, as my favorite pieces are warmed by violin and cello accompaniment from a trio of guest musicians. While I have always found rousay's work generally intriguing and unusually intimate, the more melodic and organic elements here definitely enhance her aesthetic wonderfully. This album genuinely feels like it is on a completely different level than most of rousay's previous releases.
After a brief and enigmatic introduction that sounds like a dictaphone recording of someone moving around a room and using a typewriter, the album begins in earnest with the absolutely gorgeous "discrete (the market)." It is essentially a continuation of the sounds from the opening "preston ave," but they are now joined by slow, beautiful drone swells and a shifting host of other elements (wind chimes, a tender piano melody, and an intensifying low-end surge). It evokes the sensation of blissfully lounging in an apartment on a perfect spring day while sunlight streams in, curtains gently sway, and sounds drift in from neighboring apartments and the street below. The following "peak chroma" is similarly excellent, as it feels like home videos of childhood vacations are flickering across a shimmering dronescape while an autotuned R&B jam plays on a fitfully operational radio. While "peak chroma" is ostensibly the album's hot single since it has a video, the next two songs are every bit as good, which adds up to an impressive four-song run of near-perfection. I especially enjoy how "diluted dreams" sounds like a reprise of the heavenly "discrete (the market)," but with added playground sounds and the impressive aural illusion of making me feel like I am slowly submerging in a bathtub. I also greatly appreciate the honesty and simplicity of rousay's overarching vision (using the mundane sounds of daily life as the building blocks for a deeper, more poignant whole), but it is the execution that makes this album such an immersive and wonderful delight, as the best moments feel like a warm and dreamlike fantasia of overlapping memories playing at different speeds. Rousay and Toral have done quite an impressive job of blurring the lines between sound art, visual art, poetry, drone, and pop in a pleasing and soulful way here, which is a definitely not a feat that many other artists could convincingly pull off so gracefully. I probably do not need to say this, but I will anyway: a softer focus is unquestionably destined to be all over "Best of 2021" end-of-year lists.
Samples can be found here.