Anak Ko feels like both a great leap forward and a subtle retreat, a fascinating auditory illusion played by Duterte.
Even in an age where anyone can make any kind of album they want in their own home, Jay Som – the brainchild of Melina Duterte – has always been impressive. Her first two albums, 2015’s Turn Into and 2017’s Everybody Works, were notable not because they were good; they were, but that’s beside the point. Go back and listen to songs like “Remain” and closer “For Light” from Everybody Works while keeping in mind that the (deep breath) guitars, keyboards, bass, drums, piano, accordion, trumpet, lyrics, and production of those songs were done by just one person: save for some background vocals by a few friends scattered throughout, Everybody Works was mastermind Duterte in nearly every square inch. We call it “bedroom pop” when people make music like that, which is as reductive a descriptor of the music as “lo-fi,” in that the means of production just aren’t that important, especially for albums that feel far bigger than their incubators. What really matters is that it was music fit for summer bike rides, parties with friends, end-of-summer breakups, road trips, and – yes, okay – bedrooms.
Anak Ko (Tagalog for “my child”) feels like both a great leap forward and a subtle retreat, a fascinating auditory illusion played by Duterte. Everybody was a hit with a lot of lovers of lush indie pop, which is likely what lead to the expansion of her world, and this album sees a bevy of different players joining the party for various songs. It’s still largely Duterte’s show, but friends like Oliver Pinnell (who sang on Everybody), drummer Justus Proffit, and Annie Truscott (Chastity Belt), Laetitia Tamko (Vagabon), and Taylor Vick (Boy Scouts). Yet somehow, despite all of this, the sound of Anak Ko is far less explosive, as though she’s been pulled back into the comfort of that bedroom. It’s a play for the fans of gauzy ‘90s dreampop, packed lovingly with obfuscated vocals and gliding guitars.
And that’s part of why Anak Ko is successful: nothing about it sounds especially new, but the tools used are lovingly deployed by someone with a preternatural familiarity with what makes this kind of music good: even on your first listen, it pulls you into a sonic blanket that feels comfortable enough that you’ll forget you haven’t been wrapping yourself in it for the last 20 years. Opener “If You Want It” starts us off with Duterte’s buried vocals in a gentle swirl of muted guitars as she sings indirectly about lost love: “I can remember/ The words were forming in your mouth/ You’d found another/ To bring you joy and play a part.” As the song progresses, the frame widens slightly and the song gets denser and dancier, all of which dovetails nicely into the excellent “Superbike,” a song that sounds like it could have been on a Lush record – rest assured, that’s a high compliment.
The entirety of the album has an ebb and flow, where otherwise quiet songs will expand and explode before retreating back to the safety of restraint. It’s a playful construction, and thankfully it’s not launched in the same way every time – “Peace Out” gives way to a noisy guitar section, while “Devotion” and “Tenderness” simply allow the Britpop atmosphere to gradually expand and contract without that same release. Then there’s “Anak Ko,” perhaps the album’s best and most interesting song, which starts from a stripped back place before removing even more layers, which it steadily replaces by growing an atmosphere of droning, impending doom and, soon, Duterte’s chopped up vocals.
The regrettable thing is that the things that make Anak Ko charming are what keeps it from feeling as essential as Everybody Works. Duterte’s vocals make it difficult to really parse what she’s singing about (a shame, considering the very funny line about “Constructing shallow dreams of/ Shoplifting at the Whole Foods” in “Nighttime Drive”), and once your read the lyrics, you find that they’re far less direct than those of Everybody Works: “Don’t wanna slow down/ Don’t wanna forget/ The company’s fine/ The feeling’s alright” (“Crown”) and “Said you wanted something else/ Something new for show and tell/ Gonna breathe until you’re gone” (“Superbike”) just aren’t as potent as “Try to make ends meet/ Penny pinch ’til I’m dyin’” or “Are secrets still a thing?/ You lie and you make believe/ You can hide but you can’t deceive.”
On top of that, at a brisk 35 minutes long, there’s little time for the dreamlike vocals and construction to give you anything tangible to grab onto. If Duterte’s aim was to make something where remembering fine details can prove to be as difficult as remembering those of a particularly good dream, she nailed it. Anak Ko is a step towards the right direction for Jay Som, and Duterte as an impressively multi-talented creator, and despite its shortcomings, you can’t help but want to see what happens when she lets the world in just a little bit more.