Home Music Rediscover: Au Revoir Simone: Still Night, Still Light

Rediscover: Au Revoir Simone: Still Night, Still Light

When Au Revoir Simone released their third album, Still Night, Still Light, in 2009, it was into a world of retro-love for Casio-toned synth-pop. Their timing was perfect: the album was received with enthusiasm, and if the music was a little light and twee, well, perhaps the world needed a little light and twee in the slow recovery from the Great Recession. The Guardian called it “an unassuming delight.” Although Jimmy Newlin, writing in Slant, noted that “Given the innate adorableness of three awfully cute girls from Williamsburg playing lo-fi synth-pop, it’d be easy to dismiss Au Revoir Simone as the indie-rock equivalent of what film critic Nathan Rabin calls the ‘manic pixie dream girl,’” he went on to reduce them to just that, calling their music “coyly melancholy,” and referring to the trio’s singing style as a “coo.” Sputnik Music said the album had a “charming innocence” and referred to the “all-girl trio.” Even the BBC, which took the album a little more seriously, diminished them as “a ‘girl group’ with a difference” and noted their “comically tinny beats.”

But listening to Still Night, Still Light in 2021, it’s the dark seriousness of the lyrics that penetrates the sweet, same-y sounds. Erika Forster, Annie Hart, and Heather D’Angelo, the women behind Au Revoir Simone, come across as subversive, cloaking their painfully realistic perspectives on relationships behind deliberately dreamy vocals and lo-fi, retro keys. Their voices blend so seamlessly—both with each other and with their arrangements—that it’s all too easy to dismiss the lyrics, or to focus only on a key phrase in a chorus. And perhaps that’s exactly the intent.

“Shadows” is a perfect example. Possibly the darkest song on the album, its chorus appears to have seduced reviewers into thinking it a different song. “I’m moving on,” Au Revoir Simone sing. “I hope you’re coming with me.” But the song’s not about a simple reluctant breakup. There are references to mental health issues: “You tell me/ That it’s getting better/ But every time that we say goodnight I’m haunted by your eyes/ And how long they’ve been crying.” Or maybe it’s drug issues: “Don’t tell me/ About a bad reaction…” The singer is applying tough love, urging their partner to pull themself together, and not accepting excuses. “Anyone can answer their own questions/ All you have to do is look inside…/ You know it will be all right…/ Don’t blame it on your shadows/ Cause I know all about you.” Seen through the broader lens of the full lyrics, the song is more complex, the speaker more sophisticated, the relationship more nuanced than it originally seemed.

Similarly, at first listen, “The Last One” may have sounded like a romantic tune about finding the person you’re going to stay with. But there’s a sinister undercurrent here: “I know you think that you know me/ Because it’s been a long time,” they sing, but then “Let me, let me go/ Because you don’t, and you’ll never, know.” The implication is that the partner has never truly connected with anyone, including the singer, who now has one foot out the door. “If you can’t tell the real from the imaginary/ It will seem surprising when I disappear/ Like the last one.

Even when they’re on the lighter side, Au Revoir Simone’s lyrics can sound like poetry. On “All or Nothing,” backed by a silly-sounding drum track and executed with carefully light vocals, we get:
Everywhere is somewhere, baby
So can’t you see we’re in the middle
Somewhere.

Nowhere just means knowing nothing
of where you’ve been or where you’re going
feels farther.

As a follow-up to the album, in 2010, Au Revoir Simone released a groundbreaking “interactive video” (an animated coloring book, sad victim of the death of Flash). Delightful as the video was—rife with magic, ghosts, classic organs and owls—it proved another detraction from the simplest, most exuberant lyrics on the album: “Oh, joy, I can see you/ It’s all I want.” The track also sports what may be the most effective use of a pitch wheel in pop music.

“Organized Scenery” starts with a chord change straight out of the Grass Roots’ “Let’s Live for Today.” As with that classic song, there’s a celebratory sound to the chorus here which belies the essential message of the piece. “In the warmth of winter we cried out/ ‘Take what’s left of your time and decide’/ And you wouldn’t look beyond the other way/ We know everything changed.”

Everything does change, and just 12 years on from Still Night, Still Light, the album looks very different. The Casio tones and “tinny” drums are still intact. The vocals are still frothy-light and perfectly meshed. But the world is suddenly the moonlit night that the title promised. Everything is nuanced. Nothing is without its dark side. But that dark side is one worth listening for.

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