Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth met in a kindergarten art class, and have since held a long-standing creative partnership, one that has yielded a wide range of various outputs — from building treehouses to shooting short films to recording and releasing their 2016 musical debut as Let’s Eat Grandma, I, Gemini. The album followed years of exploring music together primarily as play, before spinning those sessions into freewheeling psychedelic trance folk that charmingly betrayed its sportive origins without lessening any of its substance. Yet despite resulting in a collection of entrancing nocturnal goth-pop, it seems the duo’s decade-plus artistic bond is only just now beginning to realize its greatest potential.
Where I, Gemini carried forth in fits and spurts, pleasantly wading in its own offbeat mood between dazzling sleights of hand, the project’s sophomore effort I’m All Ears is an exactingly executed sequence of surrealist synth rock. The two are no less experimental in their approach, suggesting shoegaze by way of tap dance or thermonuclear new-wave, but the results feel appreciably more deliberate. Latent at their introduction, Let’s Eat Grandma have leveled up considerably, this time around realizing a more expansive, inclusive vision of their precocious iconoclasm.
The compositions on I’m All Ears are professional and magnetic, suggesting an expert level of studio craftsmanship that obscure just how improbably young these two really are. Take the SOPHIE-produced lead single “Hot Pink,” which carves out and collapses a vacuum via a beat drop set off entirely by anti-matter. The song starts with lilting, taunting vocals, as a subtle boom beneath the surface suddenly transforms into a kaleidoscopic storm of broken glass and welded steel. The second half of the song goes from industrial gurgling to bubblegum sparkles, reflecting the lyrics full-bodied dismissal of borders between masculinity and femininity, presenting the traditionally conflicting concepts as complementary points within the same constellation.
The album is full of these bold juxtapositions, contrasting mechanical low-end with softly lit melodic touches and mystical imagery with unrestrained emoting. They maintain an extremely steady balance like that of a surgically precise watercolorist, delivering dense details with a soft-focused imprint. But while the production is spotless, the songwriting is distinctly teenage in the best possible way — defiantly vulnerable, confrontationally liberated and uncompromising in its excess. I’m All Ears is an album about young love, or more specifically, about being enamored with the idea of young love.
Packed with specific impressions abstracted into romantic philosophy, the penmanship across I’m All Ears is singularly and uniformly evocative. “Bet you remember it was New Year's Eve / Sparklers through Palaced streets / We knew though years do change / We'd always feel the same,” Walton sings on the other SOPHIE-produced single “It’s Not Just Me” (which also features work from the Horror’s Faris Badwan), highlighting how distinct moments from the past can capture the entirety of intricate relationships in textured amber. The song itself is twitchy, twinkling pop, something like Lorde by way of Hot Chip. Like both of those artists, Walton and Hollingworth are skilled technicians at expressing simultaneously the thrill and terror of discovering a true spark in what was previously thought of as unrequited longing.
On album highpoint — and one of the best songs of the year — “Falling Into Me,” they step into the subsequent phase of blurry-edged all-in attraction, when you share with someone a mutual airspace seemingly unperturbed by the rest of the world it occupies. It’s an ode to the rush of uninhibited intimacy, but also the strength it provides in navigating all the uncharted territory it raises along the way. There’s the fall: “I can’t just lay or let be / When all the words you say are hanging onto me / You occupy my mind by every which way,” and then the bracing for impact: “You, me, this / Now wherever we go is the best place / No need to be restrained.”
The potency of these sentiments comes from not just the words they choose, but their delivery, which swings from hiccups of bone-deep excitement to declarative chants, all chopping their syllables into an assortment of uncommon and intoxicating patterns. Walton adopts a delectably tumbling flow to wax bitter on “Snakes & Ladders,” meanwhile the combined sulfuric swell of their two voices intertwined translate the chorus on “Hot Pink” from would-be fussy to high-voltage electricity. On the longing mental health narrative “Ava,” Hollingworth sings with a supportive urgency over the skipping piano, leaning into the vowels on the line, “Well, if you slip or stall, I'll be holding your hands,” before straightening up just as the piano falters for a half-second.
Let’s Eat Grandma contextualize each of these moments within a broader universe of sounds, a dynamic color palette that offers room for both the declarative overture of “Falling Into Me” and the plush undercurrents of “It’s Not Just Me.” In a departure from the teetering idiosyncrasy of I, Gemini, their sonics this time around are all imbued with an innate sense of movement that if not fully demanding audience participation, suggests they are warming up to dancefloors. Every decibel on I’m All Ears comprises an adventurous auteurism with regards to rhythm and timbre worthy of the group’s suggested antecedents in James Murphy and Lady Gaga.
Best is when the group lets their daring stretch out to cosmically grand lengths. The previous album had long songs, but I’m All Ears dedicates almost half of its runtime to two ambitious colossals of songcraft. The first, “Cool & Collected,” is a washed-out guitar number that embodies Angel Olsen’s composure and a sense of wonder lifted from the guitar tones of Houses Of The Holy, guided through a should-be unsustainable rate of growth until it deconstructs into separate pieces stirring in tandem as though sharing a hive mind.
The second, “Donnie Darko,” is a sentimental starcruiser, like an LCD Soundsystem epic where the Nancy Whang’s ad libs take lead vocals. Across 11 minutes, Walton and Hollingworth bend cavernous guitars, a crawling house loop, and poetry about insular introspection into a romantic, moon-drenched slow-burner. The song never makes any obvious moves from section to section, but by the end still manages to land at a rousing, cathartic outro that feels built on top of everything that came before it. That’s the fulcrum of Let’s Eat Grandma many strengths — and their greatest feat on I’m All Ears — that they are able to stoke magic with both the allure of alchemy and with the eye of architects.