Perhaps it’s the pitch-shifted and beaming Ladysmith Black Mambazo sample that opens the record. Perhaps it’s the floating harmonies and ebulliently snapping beat that end the finale, “Perfume,” an ostensibly hopeful number about the strength of friendship despite a geographic distance. Or perhaps it’s the woozy splendor of “Matchstick,” the trunk-rattling pizzazz of Well$’s guest verse during “WMN,” or any of the other dozen charms loaded inside Damager‘s nine tracks.
Either way, unless you lean in closely and scrutinize the honeyed hooks of Kate Thompson or drifting verses of Dax Beaton rather than hum along with them, you are bound to miss the extreme emotional turmoil of these songs. You’ll be too distracted by the sheer prettiness and pull of it all to notice the shrine of hurt feelings, the panoply of bruised characters. It’s there, though, in every singsong chorus and stuttering rhythm. Sex scars and friendship disappoints. Lust begets domination and memories cause confusion. Trouble simmers deceptively beneath the surface, waiting patiently to burst through each of Damager‘s soft stylistic seams. When, at last, it does, it’s hard to look away from Damager.
Subtlety may seem a surprising trait for an act whose existence, so far, has consisted of sporadic SoundCloud streams, a beguiling covers EP, and very occasional concerts. But the musical nuance at work throughout Damager is clear from the first listen, long before you have time to slip beneath its cool emotional veneer.
Each of these nine songs extends at least one clear, magnetic hook, the kind of moments likely to drive a concert crowd wild or that you hear in your own head even when Damager is done playing. There’s the Mambazo-backed drop of “Sunny Day” and the synths that spiral out of it. There’s Beaton’s heart-clutching crooning during “Outdone,” where he sings “You can be my god/You can lead me home” like Phil Collins in balladeer mode. And there’s the high-pitched, robotic lines of the title track, which feels at first like a love song for space travel.
But these songs are broader and smarter than those mere moments. Listen, for instance, for the granular attentiveness of “WMN,” where Thompson’s voice curls inside a restless cycle of effectsrefracted, scrambled, slowed, drugged. Well$ chases himself through his verse, manipulations of his voice pursuing him through his own bars like a thought bubble. “Silent Movie,” on the other hand, softens the boundaries between field recordings and samples, between the drums and the synthesizers, between Thompson and Beaton. And “Gossip,” one of only two obviously foreboding songs here, resurrects the ashen ghosts of Salem, adding coruscant bells and lullaby voices to scowling, blown-out bass. Pop and electroclash, industrial and hip-hop, ambient and house: Body Games links or nests all of these forms in turn but gives them enough space that these songs don’t slink into pastiche or patchwork.
Back to those feelings, though: They are the core of Damager, the stable foundations on which the rest of this material is built. The pleasure of these songs stems from the way they pour out of pain, creating tension even as the sounds work to dissolve it. Beaton seems let down by his own prurience during “Matchstick,” so he slowly, blissfully sings a song about it. By sampling a voice mail from someone’s wounded ex-lover instead of faking it, “Special,” the album’s brilliant centerpiece and challenging duet, reminds us that dealing with such conflict is why we exist or make artto sort through it all, to make some sense of both bad and good.
Music this deeply conflicted and instantly accessible is rare. At least at first, you will love these songs. And in the long run, you will be bothered by them, as haunted by what they have to tell you about the world as the people singing them seem to be.