Craig Pollard has some big ideas about pop music. Since 2013, per his website, he's been a teaching assistant in the music department at Newcastle University, while working on a PhD that he just finished called "Interjecting into Inherited Narratives: The Politics of Contemporary Music Making and Creative Practice." In 2014, he wrote a dense exploration of Future Islands' bafflingly viral Letterman performance for a website called Notes on Metamodernism, which used singer Samuel T. Herring's vocal affectations and physical mannerisms as a way of explaining, as he puts it, the way that "postmodern discourse is understood as simply another creative material ready to be explored and played with alongside the ‘language’ of popular music." It's heavy stuff.
Generally people who engage with this sort of music do so with a wink or a sense of superiority—that they get the game in a way that your average supermarket listener of Top 40 doesn't. But that's not the way Pollard works. Over the past few years, under the moniker Competition, Pollard has also offered his own take on pop sounds and performance. Constructed mostly around a sampler and his own voice—most often in an endearingly fragile upper register—his songs no doubt engage with some of the same ideas he employs in his theorizing. But when I listen to his new record You turned into a painting, out Wednesday on the esteemed Slip Imprint, I don't hear the work of an academic, at least not strictly. Across the record's seven tracks, there's a lot of heart and honesty, and some of the most wonderfully off-balance melodies I've heard in a long while.
Pollard's songwriting tends to be imagistic and fractured, in a long tradition of tinkers who take the DNA of popular music and stretch it into stranger forms. The opener "talk" is built around a minimal jaunty piano plink—which sounds a little like what would happen if Hype Williams tried to cover "I Wanna Be Your Dog"—that forms the basis of a bald plea for human connection, one of pop's immortal subject matters. Many songwriters have attempted to try to bring pathos to the tenuousness of digital communication, but I've rarely been as moved by it as I have on the whispered "thisisfine.gif," which captures the lonely solemnity of receiving a devastating communique on your phone and having to hold it all together anyway. Elsewhere there's hazy refractions of rap beats and R&B (on tracks like "cul de sac" and "crystals") interspersed with in-the-red field recordings and ghostly samples. It all plays like he's tried to recreate radio hits solely from his voice memos app.
There's a theatricality in some of the more upbeat tracks that reminds me of the downcast drama of acts like Parenthetical Girls or Xiu Xiu, who each sought to inflate mundane thoughts the marquee, floodlit scale that pop demands. But Pollard's music feels unique even in that contexts. It's built off the language and grammars of music that's meant to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, but his is often composed of whispers and found sounds and broken-sounding samples. It's intimate and personal, as if he just mumbled the songs to himself on a dreary walk to work and we're just lucky to overhear them.
Competition tour dates:
November 6 London - DIY space w Mat Riviere + Great Dad + Acacia Spines
November 7 - Brighton - The Western w Mat Riviere + Dubais + Furore
November 8 - Leeds - *house show* w Mat Riviere + Posh Spice + Anna Peaker
November 9 - Newcastle - The Northern Charter w Mat Riviere + Leah Millar + Rene McBrearty
November 15 - London - 33 Chatsworth Road w Eliza McCarthy (playing Mica Levi) + Julia Reidy
Competition's You turned into a painting is out November 7 on Slip Imprint, but you can stream it in full up above.
Colin Joyce whispering into the unlistening, overcast morning sky, over on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.