Back in 2014, Shamir Bailey popped onto the scene with “On the Regular,” a single that grafted something similar to the assured lyricism of Azealia Banks’s “212” onto a cowbell-ringing, electro-disco beat, like a danceable mutation of a Space Invaders sound chip. But on “Revelations,” Shamir forgoes the bright synths from 2015’s “Ratchet” for lo-fi indie pop. It’s both a radical shift and a letdown, a clumsy intimation of what could have been.
Recorded on a four-track over the course of two weeks, “Revelations” feels too much like the debut of a “musician” friend from high school under Bandcamp’s “lo-fi” tag. Which is to say, it treads overly familiar ground. To be sure, Shamir hasn’t had the most uplifting time recently. Last year, he was dropped from his label, XL Recordings. Then, in April, he self-released an album — “Hope,” a similar lo-fi exploration — on SoundCloud. After its release, he reportedly had a psychotic episode and was sent to a mental hospital where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Recorded during his return home to North Las Vegas, “Revelations” is less an album than a coping mechanism, a sonic resume of frustrations.
It’s a shame, then, that this album is rife with uninteresting platitudes and bored instrumentation. Shamir calls his music “outsider art,” but it has none of the markers of that genre’s staple artists, none of the chaotic authenticity of Daniel Johnston or the synth-laden weirdness of street musician The Space Lady. Instead, Shamir spends most of this album plodding through trite grievances and repetitive beats. To be an outsider is to prod at music’s confines, to be abrasive and experimental, yet Shamir stays neatly inside. On “Cloudy,” he resorts to banalities, insisting: “In time, all wounds will heal. Meanwhile, “You Have a Song” is — as odd as it sounds — conceptually ripped from Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song.” That’s not to say that Shamir never grasps at unfamiliar and bright directions, because he certainly does, but for every “Astral Plane,” there’s a “90’s Kids.”
Really, nearly all of “Revelation”’s gaffes are condensed into its lead single, “90’s Kids.” It’s a response to those anti-millennial articles about avocado toast and entitlement, a movement perhaps best exemplified by the Time’s cover story, “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation.” The thing is, that op-ed came out over four years ago, so when Shamir’s voice rings over twee acoustics, singing, “Our parents say we’re dramatic / but they always ask for more than we do,” the sentiment withers, uninspired and childish.
The music video, a sluggish montage of early 2000s image macros, only magnifies the sense that this song is an empty-handed gesture to college-aged kids, a few years out-of-sync. It’s an inert attempt at nostalgia, emptied of celebration. In fact, the only consistent movement throughout the whole video is Shamir’s lips, superimposed over the image macros in what I can only assume is a grotesque reference to “The Annoying Orange.” Altogether, it comes off as lifeless and insincere, like an aging Sony exec came up with the song during a layover in LaGuardia, instead of a 22-year-old black non-binary artist.
Tellingly, it’s when Shamir shifts into voicing disorientation, these hazy senses amplified through the blurry lo-fi production, that he feels the most genuine, raw and exposed. On “Revelation”’s other single, “Straight Boy,” Shamir asks: “Can someone tell me why / it seems that all straight boys care about / is how they’re viewed from the outside?” It’s a question posed over fuzzy guitars, and Shamir simply lets it hang in the air, a secondary vocal track echoing the daze. With “Straight Boy,” Shamir exposes something fresh, something that Straight White Indie Boy No. 46 has no access to — namely, the LGBT experience, lost in lo-fi’s homogenous hoard of sad guys alone in their bedrooms.
Similarly, on “Astral Plane,” the standout track from the album, Shamir’s instrumentation drips like honey: viscous and slow-moving, foggy and opaque. He sings of the unknown, dazed and hesitating: “Maybe you’ll find heaven on the other side / and if you don’t, at least you know you survived.” He softens it with a slipping choir of “aah” and “ooh,” this sense of the otherworld. It’s the same cosmic space Jonathan Richman reifies on The Modern Lovers’ own “Astral Plane,” and an open path for Shamir to stumble onto, to uncover and complicate.
In its final instance, though, this album remains half-baked, a hodgepodge of aborted attempts and under-explored realms. The only thing Shamir carries over from his well-received “Ratchet” is his countertenor voice, which flitters across each of “Revelation”’s lo-fi tracks. It’s an androgynous middle-ground between early Art Garfunkel’s restrained, acoustic-tinged falsetto and the smoky sound of Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard. With a voice like that, Shamir is primed to unravel indie pop’s conventional beats. Yet “Revelation” remains shallow, a tepid mediocrity instead of a festering, open wound.