Dark, moody, evocative, beautiful, intelligent, and baffling. If you're a liberal arts major, Reb Fountain's Iris might just be the best album you hear this year.
Born in San Francisco and based in New Zealand, Reb Fountain has been composing and performing for over a decade, although she only released her first album in 2017, followed by an award-winning self-titled album in 2020. Previously, her sound had been largely in the folk/country sphere, but with Iris, her musical horizons have expanded considerably. It integrates a wide range of music elements, ranging from restrained folk backed by light strings, to dense electronic production.
Fountain cites Bob Dylan as a major influence, and that shows in her lyrics - one of the main focuses of the album. Every song is replete with cryptic references including Donnie Darko, the Titanic, Abrahamic theology, and a full pantheon of shoutouts to Greek goddesses.
She's fond of repeated declarative statements, often forming the centerpiece of her pieces - but just as often without much explanation of their meaning. Lead single "Foxbright" sees her repeatedly chanting "There's love for you in the mosque lamp, honey," followed by "Take to the burrow!"
What does it mean? A half-dozen listens failed to shed much light. These repeated figures often seem to be deliberately vague, an invitation for reflection rather than a clear statement.
Still, strong themes emerge throughout the album, giving it deep cohesion in an era when so many "albums" are simply collections of single-serving songs. Themes of seafaring, ships sinking, unfulfilled or unrequited dreams, searching for meaning, hiding from fears or obligations, and parallels between the Heavens and the Earth come up frequently. Iris could be fodder for any number of deconstructions and analyses, with a seeming depth most other albums could never hope to achieve.
This would all be pretentious twaddle if the music wasn't strong, but fortunately for Fountain, her compositions help hold up the weight of her portentious lyrics. Each song glides by, with strong melodies and - at times - genuinely creative and interesting production. The songs which blend her singer-songwriter roots with strange analog synth counterpoints are particularly effective, creating a vibe which is simultaneously familiar and yet alien.
Finally, there is Fountain's voice, which is superb. She ranges from etherial wails at the top of her range in the title track, to soulful throaty resentment in "Beastie" and "Fisherman." Fountain carries the entire album on her shoulders, and does so with remarkable aplomb. Most of these songs could still hold up, even if it was only her and a guitar. The eclectic and unusual production merely adds interest, as well as helping the album to remain fresh and surprising throughout its 40-minute length.
Anyone looking for easy, accessible pop would do well to look elsewhere. Only a couple tracks on the album could even be described as "approachable." However, if you're looking for an album which engages the mind and soul, or you want something you could listen to dozens of times and still find new hidden meanings, Iris is outstanding.
It's not for everyone, but for the right person, this album will be truly special.