Gordi remains all too human on Reservoir.
Gordi—the artistic moniker of 24-year-old Australian songwriter Sophie Payten—first made a name for herself in 2015 with her unique cover of Courtney Barnett’s single, “Avant Gardener.” Whereas Barnett’s original version drove a standard indie rock riff under wry lyrics, Gordi reformed it as a chill-inducing piano ballad. Gordi followed this up with a five-song EP called Clever Disguise full of gorgeous electro-acoustic compositions that invited comparisons to Imogen Heap. Serving a brief stint as a backing vocalist for her Jagjaguwar label-mates Bon Iver, as well as embarking on tours of her own with a live band, Gordi began to generate a substantial amount of buzz.
Capitalizing on this, Gordi went into the studio to record her debut full-length, Reservoir, with a co-production team consisting of Tim Anderson (Banks, Halsey), Ben McCarthy, Ali Chant (Perfume Genius, PJ Harvey) and Alex Somers (Sigur Rós). The result is a stunning 11-song collection rife with digitally manipulated hooks, ambitious production and, most importantly, raw human emotion. An album that largely meditates on loss, Reservoir layers the synthetic and the organic in order to map the spaces between contemplative melancholy and resilient conviction.
Album opener “Long Way” begins Gordi’s journey of coming to terms with loss. Layering her contralto vocals over a percussive loop that sounds like a clock ticking, she begs of a former lover, “Can you hear my voice in your bones again?/ Can you be with me like you were back then?/ I can’t handle all this dark again.” The song reaches a pensive climax buoyed by falsetto wolf cries, mutating rhythms and spliced vocal loops.
Whereas “Long Way” lends a gloomier sonic atmosphere to grief, single “On My Side” offers a Jónsi-esque vibrancy and insistence to Gordi’s struggles. Backed by a dramatic arrangement comprised of joyous stomps and claps, cymbal flourishes and vocal soars, Gordi expresses the difficulties of needing support while being unable to ask for it directly. Lyrics in the verses poignantly sketch out the anxieties about asking for help, but the belting hooks of the chorus most fully demonstrate them, twisting and turning the lines “I can’t, I won’t/ I’ll tell you that I don’t/ But I need you by my side.”
Shades of loss and anxiety color other moments throughout the record, but Gordi possesses a different kind of conviction to lighten them. For example, “Bitter End”—a Staves-like folk song perched in the wintry climes of its Icelandic production—accepts the tragedy of loss but tries to “take a step back” so as not to be paralyzed by it. “I’m Done,” featuring Bon Iver’s S. Carey—the closest thing to a simple acoustic song Gordi has written—is a beautiful expression of resiliency and moving on after a break-up. She croons in the opening verse, “It feels good to say I’m over you/ And mean it more and more each time,” before coming together with Carey in the chorus to declare, “I rest my head because I’m finished now/ Go to bed because I’m done/ So many days, so many ways I could’ve said to you/ Oh boy I’m done.”
Although these songs serve as examples of Gordi’s lyrical ability to process human emotions, elsewhere on the record it’s the ambitious production work that stands out. Single “Heaven I Know” layers swells of piano and synthesized brass over a loop of Payten’s incantatory “One, two, three” whispers, creating an impressive atmospheric grandeur, equal parts meditative and expressive. Gordi laces “All the Light We Cannot See” with strings, cloaks her vocals in reverb and warps everything with electronic blips and modulations, laying claim to a sonic territory between the cinematic swells of Explosions in the Sky and the digital smatterings of early Volcano Choir.
“Myriad” is the album’s most Imogen Heap-like song with its extensive use of vocoder, and the refurbished “Can We Work It Out” (originally released on Clever Disguise) throws rhythmic tension into Payten’s smooth melodies. Other songs such as “Aeon” and “Something Like This” similarly push the boundaries of expected song structure and production, constantly moving into more and more experimental realms.
Although folktronica is one of the more clunky genre portmanteaus out there today, it is the most fitting term to describe Reservoir. Throughout the record, Gordi translates what would be simple piano or acoustic guitar compositions into expansive and constantly mutating soundscapes. Every synthetic texture sounds big, and every electronic blip or vocal modulation sounds purposeful. Whereas some might be quick to denounce the use of vocoders, digital samples and programmed beats because of its removal of the human element in music, Gordi remains all too human on Reservoir. She uses her digital repertoire to flesh out moments of profound feeling, creating an electro-acoustic high drama of what it means to be alive and to experience loss.