In Alabama, there’s a small city in the northwest corner of the state that wraps around the Tennessee river; starting in the 1960s it began to earn a reputation for developing some of the best session musicians in recorded music. At the time, Muscle Shoals served as a confluence of both the Nashville Sound and the R&B and Soul of Stax-era Memphis, its closest major metropolitan neighbour. That “Muscle Shoals sound” proved incredibly popular with the public and those sought-after session musicians would soon be featured on albums by everyone from The Staple Singers and Percy Sledge to Rod Stewart and Bob Seger. Although contributing the binding aesthetic these musicians sought, the contemplative nature of the solo artists themselves would soon become synonymous with the region as well.
Kyle Bragwell, the multi-instrumentalist who performs under the moniker Space Tyger, stylistically has very little in common with the rich background he hails from. Whether purposely or reluctantly, the sound Bragwell has embodied is spacey and reverb-heavy, the kind of hypnogogic synth-pop that has almost defined the genre in the last ten years, but doesn’t exactly harken back to his home state. What he does draw from that Muscle Shoals sound is his unmistakably pensive lyrics. With Space Tyger Bragwell offers the sound of a southern man singing straightforward pop-centric ballads, even if his chosen style may be alien to those around him.
Bragwell began this project back in 2016 with his debut, Danger Days in the Clouds. Since then he has signed with Muscle Shoals’ Single Lock label and written and recorded his newest album Bittersweet, a significantly more ambitious project than any of his previous outings. In it Bragwell attempts to tell an effective story from start to finish – since his last album, The Jungle (2017), he has had a stint with a misdiagnosis of manic depression, a subsequent reliance on mood stabilisers and an inevitable love story. The story is not hard to discern when listening to the album. Bragwell’s lyrics are straight-forward and hackneyed and although the highs and lows of his last few years are tangible, they feel generic; it can be hard to get the feeling that these events happened to Bragwell specifically when he delivers them the way he does. The worst of the tracks here, “Youth”, “Dopamine” and “Weather” probably best describe that sentiment, featuring a breathy pop formula but lacking the character that could make Space Tyger stand out.
Luckily the majority of these tracks are more substantial, unique and undeniably written by Bragwell. The standout cut here, “Shake” is upbeat and fun but a stubbornly melancholy song that reveals an ear for understanding how pop music works. That same ingenuity finds itself in the title track as well. Beginning with a lofty, slow build that eventually leads to a cathartic chorus towards the end, “Bittersweet” is both catchy and emotionally resonant. Those dynamic shifts are scattershot but often come through on some of the stronger tracks.
“Bummer” is surely the funkiest song here, and probably the one most befitting of Bragwell’s roots. It features two very different sequences that play off each other repeatedly as his crooning eventually gives way to a brisk, pulsing beat – a moment that begs for a climatic chorus, but Bragwell simply shifts the tempo again and leaves us right where we left off with his mantric chorus and his funk dirge.
Whenever the styles diverge on Bittersweet, Bragwell’s message becomes its most digestible. “Zephyr” offers a counter-ballad that helps to break up the record and to his credit he delivers his heart on the sleeve lyrics in effects-heavy vocals, helping to build up an emotional wall between himself and his audience before he leaves us. It’s enough to make us reassess the upfront nature he presents towards the beginning of the album and wonder how the shift in tone fits into the album’s narrative. It’s not until some beautiful piano chords break out towards the end of “Coda” that the murkiness clears up and Bragwell lets his music speak for itself.
Maybe the best thing about Bittersweet is its sound design. Bragwell is more than capable of creating some beautiful sounding reverb and knowing just how far to push his experimentation without making it seem showy. In this sense, he has developed an ear for riding a very thin line and doing it better than many of his peers. In Muscle Shoals, he has clearly learned a lot from his fellow musicians and his role in the community, but on his weakest tracks here he has allowed his voice to fall in line with the collective whole instead of his unique specificity that can make his trials indelible.