The breakup album is often a significant turning point in the scope of an artist’s oeuvre. There’s no real blueprint for them, rather they exist as asymptotes of the various ways we as humans process and experience grief. This near impossible task of expressing the trauma of heartbreak usually pushes an artist toward uncharted territory. They might emphasise parts of themselves that had previously existed as background noise, hints but never full investitures. Lorde did this on Melodrama, finding the sound that expressed her pain by keying up the synth pop ebb that had been simmering behind her all along. Other times, they may pivot toward something entirely new. Springsteen swung from stadium anthems to downcast ballads on Tunnel of Love, and Kanye West found solace in a vocoder on 808’s & Heartbreaks. The breakup album is the sort of record capable of becoming the artist’s masterstroke, a much lauded body of work that will go on to separate their career into two distinct eras, the before and the after. When Ramona Gonzalez shifted to her own independent imprint Gloriette in 2016, it seemed to open channels for her work as Nite Jewel previously clogged by the troubles of her former labels. The Los Angeles singer-songwriter and producer had made a name for herself through her brand of R&B and funk tinged electro-pop, though it felt as though her voice (both creatively and in actuality) was never really being fully explored. 2017’s Real High marked a pivotal shift in this regard, a collection of near effervescent synth pop on which Gonzalez’s vocals became more focussed than ever and her songwriting distinctly sharper. In the four years since, her outings as Nite Jewel have been scarce but more significantly, her personal life was turning on its head. No Sun arrives as both her first music since Real High and since the dissolution of her marriage. A breakup record that both memorialises and mourns the death of this twelve year long commitment, No Sun arrives as her most remarkably poignant and stunning work to date. She pivots in a new direction, stripping back the layers of sound that once rendered Gonzalez’s voice as effectual and leaving it exposed, heartbroken and painfully sincere.
In processing and expressing the pain of her heartbreak and the destruction of her marriage, it makes seven that Gonzalez turns to her voice. It’s an instinct that feels deftly human; recalling the long oral history of lamenting and mournful wailing, the voice a channel for the catharsis and outpouring of internal turmoil. This renewed focus sees No Sun work in sparse, long passages of ambience as opposed to the buoyant machine funk of Real High or her 2016 collaboration with Dam Funk, Nite Funk. In a way it recalls Joni Mitchel’s Blue, and perhaps shares a sort of DNA with that record’s raw emotional cortex and unrelenting honesty. “I can’t describe anything that I want,” she begins on Anymore, backed by nothing more than an oscillating undulation of synth and bursts of harmonising choral voices. Her voice is at the forefront, and its crystalline in its directness until it fractures into a warped broken record before snapping back into focus. The longest and perhaps the most telling track on the album, Anymore opens No Sun with all Gonzalez’s cards on the table; a total surrender of her feelings and confusion. There are passages of complete silence over which Gonzalez simply hums, cooing to herself in the void. In fact, silence becomes a leitmotif for her in many ways. On This Time, her voice treads carefully forward at the start while dissipating into the ether around her between each step. #14 is devoid of her voice entirely, a different sort of silence after being led by Gonzalez’s cadence. The ambient soundscape accented with saxes screeching like rusty metal turns things inward, as if Gonzalez has taken a moment to close her eyes and let us into the depths of her internal turmoil.
It’s these moments that feel most significant; by using her voice as primary colour, the landscape of No Sun lays itself out around it. The production is abstract and non-linear, often pulling from the improvised syncopation of jazz. There’s tinges of FKA Twigs in the way things keep themselves relatively minimal in order to be filled by the textures of Gonzalez’s voice until her voice herself is not enough to express the mountain of what she feels. When There Is No Sun for instance explodes at its climax in a cacophony of jazz percussion, brassy and earthy all at once. The almost feral beat of these drums become manic as a choir of brass instruments rise and a sissier synth pulsates, in the words of Gonzales herself an unfathomably “eternal sea of darkness.” This in turn ends itself to the storytelling she executes on No Sun; her lyrics are to the point and her melodies pull from the soapy romance of R&B, using these tropes to heartbreaking effect. The soundscapes that do flourish on No Sun combine fantasy with domesticity; synths dance with the chug of ceiling fans, and ambient sounds from everyday life round out walls of hazy, pattering drum machines. There’s a sort of world building that Gonzalez executes, extrapolating on how the throes of heartache paint everything around you in the same shades of chaos. The excellent No Escape explodes in total synth warbling and drum crashing chaos, tidal waves from under which Gonzalez quietly admits, “there’s no escape.”
For all the pain and shadows things on No Sun are not without light. Gonzalez’s voice in particular lends itself to twinkling chords and keys, and the effect of this in tandem with confessions akin to “I can try and distract my thoughts by getting close to another,” on To Fell It, is a poignant portrayal of the emotional maelstrom of a breakup. Filtering her pain into sonic poetry is a move that has marked for Nite Jewel not so much as a return to form than a discovery of form, a reclamation of herself outside of something that has defined her for so long. Bit by bit, No Sun sees her gathering up the pieces and processing them, inviting us to bear witness and perhaps heal with her.
Listen to When There Is No Sun from No Sun below:
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