To translate the French phrase Je Suis Une île, is to acquire that of ‘I am an Island’. If such is what French singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Halo Maud considers herself as, then her debut record is the surrounding sea. Through a catalogue of intellectual, psychedelic dream pop that oozes influence of rock, folk and avant-garde, the listening experience she has crafted compares to floating weightless in an ocean of emotive exploration.
For Halo Maud (real name Maud Nadal), the solitude that the title of her debut implies is not far from reality. This album marks her first substantial solo effort within the thriving scene of French psychedelia. Given her experience as both a vocalist and guitarist in rock outfit Moodoïd, as well as alongside psych-pop darling Melody Prochet (Melody’s Echo Chamber), Nadal’s influences are not obscure. However, Je Suis Une île marks the full-length debut of a unique and independent artist, whose instinctive creativity sees her transcend the conventions of her musical environment. It is an album of motion, a dynamic entity that is driven by Nadal’s relentlessly inquisitive character and upheld by a wave of dense yet fluid instrumentation. Her attention to time is the thematic undertone throughout the record, seeing her questions of temporality, memory and their role in life correlate with the experimental patterns that appear musically.
It begins with the thumping and fast-paced drumming of opening track “Wherever”. As the smooth percussion is layered with broad, lush synths and Nadal’s soaring vocals, it creates an ethereal atmosphere in which the listener is quickly enveloped. The production only grows in abundance through the amassing reverb and ghostly wails that echo in the background, reminiscent of that within Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”. “Memories can be haunting” is the thematic anchor of the song, made no secret by the desire and poignancy that it bleeds.
However, while “Wherever” certainly captures the attention of the listener, the following track “Du Pouvoir/Power” finds Nadal somewhat grappling to restore it. Her high-octave vocals form an unsure and inquisitive tone, framed by a steady beating bass and smears of buzzing guitars drifting in the background. The track paints a picture of Halo Maud as a wondering soul, gliding between planes (just as she does between French and English), displaced, and in search of belonging.
“Chanceuse” is a synth-pop track driven by shimmering synths complimented by ascending vocals and a deep, sultry bassline which makes the song throb with suspense and possibility. It is a build up that detonates when majority of the mix drops out in way of a foreign voice, probing Nadal to “leave, and take her chance,” a refreshing point of assured clarity amongst Maud’s swirling musical excursion. It’s a song with much potential, but it will likely leave many listeners feeling alienated. “Surprise” is far more palatable, marking a sultrier dip in the record, as a woozy guitar riff glides above a quick-paced, twangy bass. Maud demonstrates her ability to use her voice as its own instrument – her tumbling vocal delivery allowing the listener to fall deeper through the complexities of her packed production.
Single “Tu Sais Comme Je Suis”, released in February, is a song of endings. While conceptually it explores a relationship hanging by a thread, the song is more so a finale in the series of swirling, psychedelic-pop tracks that make up the first half of the album. Its floating, harmonic chorus drives the song forward as Nadal works to open up a wider sonic landscape involving a layered mix of psychedelic keyboards and guitar licks which bounce off each other. The song holds a vaporous quality that bridges into the short-but-sweet interlude “De Retour”. Featuring swirly smears of sonic guitar-play (perhaps in a nod to Nadal’s psych-rock roots), it leaves the listener with a garage rock after-taste and would not sit out of place in the early catalogue of Tame Impala.
It is roughly midway through the record that Nadal pushes her creative boundaries once again with the stand out single “Baptism”, showcasing a retreat from psychedelic territory to one which is more folk inspired. The change of scenery is a welcome one, relieving the listener from the modulating synth-pop that sits precariously on the edge of the mundane. Featuring a stark, plucked guitar pattern, primitive drum beats and even a child’s voice harmonising with Nadal’s own, the stripped-back composition of “Baptism” evokes a childlike innocence which contrasts the futuristic direction of its predecessors. The following track, “Fred” finds Nadal at her most unconventional and avant-garde. The dressed down vocal delivery permits the track room to breathe, with subtle pauses giving more flair to the invigorating sprawl of tweaking electric guitars beneath steady percussion and hammering piano chords in the track’s latter stages.
The title track represents Nadal at her most introverted, evidenced not only by her reversed sample of her proclaimed song of confidence “Du Pouvoir/Power”, but by the isolation of her distorted voice as it treads water in a broad sonic sea full of sporadic punches of synth. Follower “Proche Proche Proche” in turn inherits the experimental spirit of the title track, though it retains a delicate and slightly more bouncy atmosphere, without sacrificing any degree of vulnerability.
As the record begins to draw to a close, “Dans La Nuit” presents a somber ballad which aches with longing against a nocturnal backdrop – a lack of percussion allowing it to detach from solid ground and evaporate. Nadal concludes the record on a more uplifting note, as the soaring “ahhs” of “Des Bras” over driving instrumentation bring to mind an angel’s ascension to heaven. It’s sealed with a raspy whisper of “see you soon”.
The conclusion of Je Suis Une île works to tie Halo Maud’s tightrope walk between dream and reality together on a neat note, preventing the record from reaching beyond its grasp and drowning in the ocean of uncertainty that Nadal attempts to navigate. Though the record is at times meandering, losing its foothold in turn of its ethereal aura, it is a sacrifice which does not discount its value as a fine debut with hauntingly beautiful moments.