Ashton Simmonds was once a boy. Born in Scarborough, the east of the east, though he was raised in Oshawa—a small white, suburban town just outside of Toronto. A brother and the son of Hollace and Norville Simmonds, Ashton grew up the way that young and lonely black boys like him tend to. He went to school and church, singing strong songs of worship and embarrassed songs of love; he fought and made up with himself, his parents. One day, he took his belongings in bags and headed west for Toronto in search of his destiny. At least, that's how the story goes; a cliché turned reality for the young dreamer.
What matters, though, is this: one fateful day, Simmonds recorded the 2014 EP Praise Break, a project that's process, as he puts it, "took his entire life to make." Before its release, he slipped into a new skin and a new name: Daniel Caesar. In 2015, he returned with Pilgrim's Paradise, tagging in Toronto rapper Sean Leon and BADBADNOTGOOD on production. He hailed up his brothers, Toronto's "IXXI initiative" comprised of himself, Sean Leon (the collective's founder), and producers Jordan Evans and Matthew Burnett. Co-conspirators Sean Brown, NEEDS&WANTS designer, and Keavan Yazdani, their designated cameraman, rounded out the close-knit circle's independent, visionary dream team. Slowly but surely, Caesar created believers out of skeptics left, right, and centre. In between intimate, summertime park sessions and rare, jumpy interviews, Daniel Caesar pieced together the greatest accomplishment of his career to date: Freudian. Released last week, his ten-track debut album is a rosy-eyed memory of what he described as "the most intense relationship of his life" on Apple Music's "Up Next" series.
Freudian, as tender and refreshing as it is, is bigger than one person. Or two people. Or people at all. With Freudian, Daniel Caesar is talking about an out-of-bounds love; a love that once felt like home, then suddenly, was twisted and wrought into anything but. A feeling that defies physics and rationale; one that is as firmly rooted in an unknown thing as it is unfurling its grip on permanence at the same damned time. Daniel Caesar broaches reconciliation and abandonment, as well as God and god and man and woman. Freudian is about the love that took him to the brink and the love that steadies him now, upright. Unflinching, no matter the path he chooses, and the bridges he burns along the way. The question is, which is which?
There is nothing quite like growing up to parents, a family, and a community unwaveringly devoted to faith. Its one of life's experiences that, in order to truly comprehend, must be endured firsthand. For Daniel, a child growing up in a tight-knit community of Seventh Day Adventists, a mainstream or secularist music culture was simply not a part of his upbringing. Neither were any of the delicious, uninhibited thrills that came with its enjoyment. Instead, he listened to gospel, dutifully using his body as a vessel for praise and prayer of Him. Instilled in children of religious people is a unique language and a methodology: you are told that you serve a greater being and a greater prize, far outweighing the limitations of the world around you. You learn of a blinding glory and of a just blaze of punishment. And sometimes, you may come to think of this world as its own sacrifice; a test of desire and intention, of honour and humility. When Daniel went on to pursue music, he'd went against the rules, both spoken and unspoken. "I know I brought shame / Put a mark on your name / But you got your thangs, too," he reminds on "Freudian," an obvious riff on a line from an argument raised time and time again. The righteous rules are rigid and unchanging, across the theological board: they warn against disobeying parents, disgracing the family name, resisting glittery temptation and sexual wiles. But on Freudian, an album rebelling and reveling in a decided indulgence, that particular language is the thread that keeps the story in perfect pitch and harmony.
The reasoning behind active religiosity and whirlwind romance, then, are inextricably intertwined. Both are obsessed with devotion. Enamored in their pursuit for a home-feeling and an unattainable, childlike fulfillment. When Daniel croons, "I'm coming back home to you," ("We Find Love") which home does he mean? His family home? His lover, a home in and of herself? A faraway, otherworldly heaven? Or when he serenades his love, likening her to his "violet in the sun," how much is metaphorical? How much is an ode to the unseen? At their essences, both love—romantic or otherwise—and faith are futile concepts strengthened through little more than personal conviction. But that eyes-closed conviction, when burning a ferocious burn, cannot be contained.
"Save my soul like Jesus," he requests on "Transform." He favours himself a transgressor, a word equal parts funny and strange, over a typical liar or cheater on "Neu Roses." An unholy breach of a holy union. He begs his baby to reprimand him, to be angry and rightfully so. He asks his baby to cool her temper and to eventually stay, for him and for them. After all, he was a flawed man with a desperate need. A desperate man with deep-rooted flaws. And on "Freudian," the Sean Leon-assisted final cut, reminiscent of Frank Ocean's "Futura Free," Daniel stands before his own trial, playing the judge, prosecutor, and defendant. "Isn't it nice? Human sacrifice / The universe got it, I got too excited, / And now we're taking life / Isn't it nice? Human sacrifice […] You keep chasing delight." At the end, his motivations are clear. "You say I'm a martyr / Charge that to my ego," Caesar sings, his voice dipping lower and lower. "I just want all the lights."
So what is love, if not met with a piercing, abrupt shattering? One that feels as though the whole world around it surely had to stop, too, in commemoration of its end? "I leave myself / I elevate higher," he says on "Hold Me Down," luxuriating in a special sort of high. Everything has a peak, doesn't it? Sweetness lies in the moments stolen away, the nights spent in a concentrated fervor, and the nights that feel like lifetimes, lonely and still. There's no feeling one extreme without the other, and Daniel knows that best, more than we ever could. More than he'll ever let us. Freudian is a collection of love phases.
Ultimately, Daniel thinks, it seems, that everything is finite. All that happens, good or bad, must come to a dull thud, eventually. Freudian is Daniel taking claim of the physical realm: its pleasures, its droughts, its famines. Spiritual transcendence is no guaranteed freedom. And if it all must end anyway—somehow, some way—why not live in intensity? "I don't know why I fight it / The least I could do is try," confesses Daniel. "It's never over until life ends." Take that how you may. The curious, hesitant beauty of Freudian is in its omissions. In its achy, unresolved truth and its still-standing, impermeable walls alike.
Amani Bin Shikhan is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.