Vancouver-based multimedia artist Crystal Dorval may have just recently started attracting international nods from the likes of SPIN and The Fader for her work as White Poppy, but she’s been a part of the city’s thriving DIY scene since she transplanted here from Victoria in 2010.
Steeped in personal projects, which include her own album covers, webpage backgrounds and live projections, it’s no surprise that Dorval’s musical output has been so gradual, like gems washing ashore by happenstance. An unabashedly outspoken proponent of mental health issues (she dispenses non-clinical remedies and advice regarding depression and anxiety, which she deals with herself, on her blog Sanity Soap), she also seems to release material at a therapeutic pace, whenever she feels she needs to, rather than rush to meet deadlines, appease eager fans or, worst, to capitalize on buzz.
White Poppy’s musical style has shifted subtly with each release, lending credence to the idea that she only does what comes naturally to her. Her 2012 I Had a Dream cassette was a grainy, churning head-trip; its insular throbbing, especially if there was something of a bleary walk of shame involved, stirred amorphous feelings of agitation before it settled into long, tranquil passages. Her following EP Drifters Gold, released earlier this year, opened up more crystalline vistas, like a soundtrack to real life in slow motion, every detail visible with hawk-eyed sharpness.
Seeming to push past humble DIY ambitions is White Poppy’s debut self-titled LP. White Poppy is, in a way, the culmination of her month-long Song a Day project, recorded in early 2011. Having forced herself to record whatever she felt in the moment, she learned to transcend genre. Indeed, White Poppy doesn’t really fit into any one category: the album’s ten songs are invariably too short and hooky to be as immersive as most ambient, too clear in some spots to be called shoegaze and too subdued to rock.
Unusual for White Poppy, no build opens the album. A mirage-like guitar-line on “Darkness Turns To Light” immediately uncoils like a snake from a wicker basket and charms listeners into a defenseless state. From the first bite on, White Poppy descends into emotional strata that never reach the solitary lows of I Had a Dream or the oxygen-pumped heights of Drifters Gold.
Where she goes thereafter is anything but platitudinous. There are (for White Poppy) bold hooks (“Wear Me Away”), and she could have easily gotten carried away with psych-rock riffage in “Today Tomorrow”. But even when you can bob your head along to a muffled drum machine beat or tap into other more tangible details, the prevailing element on all of these songs is still atmosphere. Dorval mostly achieves this by transforming her voice into detached echoing coos throughout the entire album. Even when, for example, she emphasizes the therapeutic value of “Wear Me Away”’s lyrics – reassuring, three-year-old lyrics that say although life may seem chaotic now, one day, you’ll wake up and realize everything’s (going to be) okay – listeners are forced to excavate bits and pieces of that message from tectonic layers of reverb and effects. I’m sure Crystal has some sage, encouraging thoughts on work-gratification dynamics though.
“Existential Angst”, the final and most contemplative moment on White Poppy, asks all of the philosophy’s core questions: Who am I? Why am I here? I can’t make out much more of the song’s lyrics, but it’s kind of poignant that the words “without a reason, just emotion” hang in the air and repeat themselves for me: washed clean of thoughts, filled with inexplicable emotions, that’s exactly how I feel every time I listen to White Poppy.
“We are trying to find something to hold onto,” “Angst” continues. Dorval makes our search a little easier with her new album, but while there is more to grab onto, her presence remains highly elusive. Listening to songs such as “Without Answers” is like waving your hand through vapour: the impressions are there, but they dissipate when you try to reach out to them.
White Poppy is no transparent attempt to cast a wider net by diversifying her style, even though overall, it’s her most cohesive and accessible work to date, and it comes at an opportune time, when more ears are listening, and more eyes are watching than ever. It’s a lot of White Poppy tropes composed into denser, more thoughtful and deliberate presentations. The pool may be at its deepest yet, but instead of free-floating, you’re constantly being pushed along by currents; her once placid shimmer is now a rushing whirlpool.
Despite the title “Without Answers”, “without questions” is the best way to approach the album. Wait. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Crystal Dorval, it’s that no prescription is right for everyone, so let me rephrase that: “without questions” may be the best way to approach the album. With music that Dorval intends to be therapeutic, for both herself as a creator and the listener as a receptacle, the last thing she probably wants is for one’s mind to swirl with or, worse yet, mull – agonize – over thoughts and questions. No wishes, no wonders; just peace.
Catch White Poppy’s album release show along with The Courtneys, Watermelon and Pan on Friday, September 6 at The Railway Club.