Releasing on a relatively quiet week, Canadian indie and electropop icon Lights – though not incredibly well-known outside of her home country – has been getting some extra attention lately with her fifth studio album, PEP. Known for genre-bending (her recent output has included a side project representing somewhat of a dubstep revival and a Drake cover album) and reinventing her own work on companion albums, Lights hasn’t released a solo record proper in nearly five years – and she’s drawing on her natural ear for a bright and attention-grabbing pop hook more than she has since her debut back in the late 2000s. Still, PEP comes with the kind of pop-rock edge that’s been steadily beginning to take over the airwaves once more, and Lights’ songwriting adds to the picture with some eye-opening takes on depression and feminism. Lights has always been wildly creative, and despite her music being a little trendier than usual, she manages to ride the wave of the zeitgeist while still offering mountains of personality and her own spin on things.
The track “Beside Myself” serves as a pretty ideal opener, as Lights reminds us of the delicate, shimmering nature typical of the best of her earlier work before diving into some more upbeat and in-your-face pop material. Delivering one of the most beautiful melodies on the project with a wall of harmonies in the back, Lights’ switch from her head to chest voice as the track picks up in energy is an electrifying moment. With the live drums and guitar strums serving as the foundation, it’s another signal that a new (but old) era of pop is upon us. Speaking of the drums, “In My Head” features Twenty One Pilots drummer – and heartthrob to alternative music fans everywhere – Josh Dun, who adds some invigorating drum fills to the track to bolster one of the better synth hooks on the project. The lyrics, however, are uncharacteristically cliched for Lights and starts to feel underwritten by the time she hits the “da-da-da” hook. “Prodigal Daughter,” on the other hand, has everything come together pretty perfectly. Opening with an absolutely manic belt, Lights shows off some newfound grittiness in her voice, contrasting it with an intense whisper with deep conviction in the undeniably suave chorus. As Lights lyrically shatters the glass ceiling and rails against deep-seated historical biases against women, the shift from angry verses to a confident resolution in the chorus underscored by buzzy synth-bass is one of the most powerful moments here.
There’s only one real miss across the whole project, and it’s the track “Salt and Vinegar,” which, oddly enough, contains the lyric that the album gets its title from. The song is extremely busy and full of awkward transitions, seemingly unsure of the direction it wants to go in. It’s telling when the song doesn’t contain any jarring tempo shifts, but it feels like it does – it moves suddenly from some No Doubt-style pseudo-reggae to a funkier section driven by a huge bassline while mixing in a dated EDM drop and a trap beat at seemingly random and haphazard times. Going forward, the magic of Lights’ cutesy vocal delivery in contrast to the badass narrative she paints throughout makes for an engaging contrast on nearly every song. “Money in the Bag,” in particular, is an example of how to do an extremely busy song correctly as Lights threatens robbery. Linking up with fellow Canadian Kiesza, a more minimal verse explodes into a blazing rock-oriented chorus as Lights lets Kiesza’s show-stopping belts loose. There’s enough personality, growth and energy in the verses that the shifts feel much more earned. “Jaws” continues the odes to rule-breaking women, aligning a little more with the big, bright 80s synthpop on the radio waves at the moment, but Lights is correct when she sings “I came up pop but I ain’t blowing bubbles.” The evocative lyrics, the dramatic whisper on the chorus and the falsetto vocalizations in the background add the kind of weird touches that could only come from a Lights track – plus, she’s pretty good at bubbles anyway.
Most of the project’s best tracks actually appear in the back half. “Rent” hits the album’s emotional peak, Lights never sounding as passionate and tangibly heartbroken on some striking vocal runs as she sadly criticizes a romantic partner – but hearing her get steadily more and more playful with her tone as the track progresses, starting to realize that it’s for the best and she’s here for herself first and foremost, really sells the performance. The echo effect on her voice adds quite a lot, and the grinding industrial synths in contrast with the shining high tones in the background make for a highly engaging sonic world. Tracks like “Sparky” and “Easy Money” are all about the knockout choruses – the sounds on display here would be starting to get a little samey with most artists at this point, but Lights’ infectious staccato delivery and lyrical specificity keeps things rolling – the eerie off-kilter piano notes before the big drop on “Sparky” are another great moment as well. “Real Thing” recruits electronic producer Elohim for a more ambient, floaty romantic track where Lights plays around with voice pitching and questions whether the kind of idealistic romance the track seems to hint at with its sound is actually possible.
Before a couple of tracks that switch things up for a final impression, “Okay Okay” offers a final blast of euphoric pop. With a massive, echoey and anthemic chorus as the jangly synths threaten to drown her out, Lights comes through with an engaging and highly flirtatious performance as she dubs herself “the happiest sad girl you’ll ever meet.” The track is a little relatably unhinged, as Lights toasts to a relationship having so much intense power over her that she’ll willingly go along with delusions and dangers. The project winds down with “Voices Carry,” which takes a bit of a step back to her safer early pop days and gives off a little bit of Christian music energy despite the pleasant surprise of the guitar explosion in the back half, and “Grip,” a spacey closer reminding us of her prowess for all things weird pop that’s more of an exercise in cool synth work than anything else.
Lights has been making many varieties of weird and wonderful music for the last 15 years, and PEP is no exception despite its more commercialized appearance on the surface. After all, the most influential music often is the kind that offers a blend between the popular and the novel, and Lights has certainly done that here.
Favourite Tracks: Prodigal Daughter, Rent, Beside Myself, Okay Okay, Easy Money
Least Favourite Track: Salt and Vinegar