During the chillwave boom of the late 2000s, New Jersey’s Dayve Hawk and his group Memory Tapes moved toward the forefront of that burgeoning sub-genre by blending blissful synth-pop hooks with lo-fi laptop ambience. But where fellow chillwave acts like Neon Indian and Washed Out have expanded their sonic ambitions on recent albums, Hawk has struggled to adapt: 2011’s Player Piano livened the spacey soundscapes of his 2009 debut Seek Magic with live drums and odd instrumental flourishes, but overall felt like an awkward stew of promising sounds that never congealed into actual songs.
With the boldly inventive Grace/Confusion, Hawk has either delivered the crowning achievement of his genre, or transcended it altogether. The record’s six sweeping, hook-filled epics unbeholden to sonic limitations, endlessly shifting into new realms of sound. “Neighborhood Watch” opens the album with a sleepy barrage of dream-pop guitars, with strummed acoustics and spacey, bent-note leads decaying into miles of reverb. But when the track blossoms into a blaring EDM jam midway through, the dynamic shift feels like a dead end—the lone moment of predictability on an album defined by its subtle yet startling range. “Thru The Field” moves from mild-mannered synth-pop to a trippy instrumental coda that sounds like a B-side from Genesis’ 1986 record, Invisible Touch; “Safety” builds from glitchy electronics to brooding piano and choral samples, climaxing with a wild guitar freak-out and a spooky vocal hook that falls somewhere between Soft Cell and a Gregorian chant.
Grace/Confusion’s tracks are long and complicated, but they feel economical—mostly because of Hawk’s finesse with structure and dynamics. Unlike so many of his laptop-fiddling peers, this guy knows to how to build a song that breathes. This isn’t an album of verses and choruses, but rather moods and movements: “Sheila,” the lengthiest and most schizophrenic track, is also the album’s purest pop moment. By throwing out the genre rulebook, Hawk is pushing electronic music into weirder, more exciting territory, chillwave purists be damned.