It doesn’t reveal anything new about shoegaze, but its best songs are among the best indie pop of the year.
Playing shoegaze in 2019 presents two major challenges. The first is that the genre itself is kind of an anachronism, and anyone participating in it runs the risk of, at best, being called a revivalist and, at worst, being accused of whatever Shoegaze Godhead critics happen to remember that week. The second is that shoegaze’s conventions are incredibly difficult to break away from or leave behind. Once you’re a shoegaze act, you’re a shoegaze act for life, and doing something different with the genre is close to impossible without inviting indifference or ridicule. But what Hariette Pilbeam—the Australian songwriter who performs as Hatchie—has done with her album Keepsake is try to have it both ways, both shoegaze and not-shoegaze, with a fair deal of success. While it bears some of the trademarks of dreamy shoegaze, Keepsake makes overtures to modern pop trends that indicate both a desire on Pilbeam’s part to not be pigeonholed and a bigger-sounding future ahead.
If there’s a comparison to be made with Keepsake (and if one were feeling kind of lazy), it would have to be with Cocteau Twins. This seems obvious on the surface, given that the first Hatchie EP featured contributions from Cocteaus bassist Simon Raymonde, but the album’s use of warm, dreamlike synths and electronic drum beats definitely owe a lot to the shoegaze icons. However, to call Keepsake a Cocteau Twins knockoff is not only reductive; it also misses the point of what Pilbeam is doing here. Take lead single “Without a Blush” as an example. Pilbeam doesn’t obscure her lyrical meaning in a wash of electronics or odd vocal effects in the mode of Elizabeth Fraser; she’s direct and upfront about writing what is, in the end, a sweet love song with a melancholic bent. This openness is a theme throughout the entirety of Keepsake, and it firmly places Hatchie on the “pop” end of dream-pop.
In fact, Keepsake is structured even more like a pop album than one would expect. There’s little in terms of thematic bent, though her arrangements and sonic aesthetics remain pretty consistent throughout. Instead, everything is song-focused, and the album plays more like an old-school collection of singles and b-sides. This is somewhat unfortunate, given that there is a distinct gap between the singles (“Blush” and “Obsessed,” which are great) and the b-material (“Unwanted Guest” and “Keep,” which are…okay). Furthermore, while Pilbeam uses this hazy aesthetic to great effect, it’s still an aesthetic that’s been well-used over decades, and Keepsake doesn’t reveal anything new about it.
Still, when everything clicks, Keepsake is at times brilliant. Its best songs are among the best indie pop produced this year and will likely take up residence in your head for weeks on end after listening to them. It still seems likely that Pilbeam is something of a shoegaze tourist and that her songwriting will take her away from this aesthetic as she keeps growing as a writer and musician, but be that as it may, she accounts for herself quite well, and Keepsake’s best songs do the heavy lifting when necessary.