“Quirkiness”, as a concept, is extremely difficult to get right. Whilst in certain circumstances, an element of quirk can make something seem interesting or unique, more often than not, it comes across as pretentious or annoying. Take the film Juno; I have a longstanding love for Juno, since I enjoy its rapid-fire dialogue and quality acting, but I also completely understand why a large subsection of the public finds it unbearable: its protagonist is unfailingly smug and sarcastic, and it really does seem to think that it’s cool. Plus, the soundtrack is mostly Kimya songs, which are the definition of twee. This connects to Alex Izenberg in that Harlequin, Izenberg’s debut album, is an album of fundamentally strong parts, rendered unsatisfying by a series of “quirky” production choices, which seem to think they’re much more clever than they actually are.
Pre-release single To Move On works as a microcosm for everything that’s frustrating about Harlequin. The song opens with a series of echoing, wistful piano chords, and Izenberg singing about the after-effects of what is presumably a breakup – “waking up in a haze”. This sequence is evocative, but it unfortunately only lasts about 30 seconds. The song then moves into the much more upbeat chorus, which adds a rolling drumbeat, staccato horns, and piercing falsetto harmonies to the mix, which distract from the fairly strong lyrics – “you don’t know what it’s like to move on”. The production on the track is overbearing, and Izenberg’s unwillingness to let his verse run for more than 8 bars robs it of the dynamism and tension it could easily have. Instead of building to a naturally developed chorus, it sounds like it’s oscillating between two completely different songs, only one of which has any restraint.
The rest of the album continues in largely the same vein. Izenberg actually has a real gift for Paul McCartney-style melody, and he could comfortably exist alongside Tobias Jesso Jr if he wanted to, but he seems unable to trust the listener enough to give his melodies room to breathe. Changes does something similar to To Move On, in that it torpedoes the tension built by its guitar and voice verses with a haze of droning reverb and thudding drums in the chorus. A Bird Came Down ends with some field recordings of children playing, which aside from being something of a cliche as far as field recordings go, doesn’t really add anything to the album thematically. It seems like Izenberg has littered the album with field recordings because he thinks that’s what cool, indie bands do.
The marketing material for Harlequin compares the album to Grizzly Bear and Wild Beasts, and it’s easy to see why. All three groups have an affected, academic style of musicianship, that lends itself to oddity, and the aforementioned “quirk”. However, what Izenberg misses that those two groups don’t, is that their performative tendencies are always deployed in service to some overarching theme or goal, whereas on Harlequin it feels like they’re being used to obscure. Harlequin always feels like it’s messing with the listener, luring them in with tenderness or quality melody, but then pulling it away suddenly, and replacing it with something less appealing. If only Izenberg could zero in on the better parts of his sound, he could have some real potential as an artist.