In the two years since their brooding, coldwave-inspired debut album, Trst, Toronto synthpop outfit Trust lost a member (Maya Postepski, who left to focus on her band Austra) and became an alias for singer Robert Alfons. The switch-up seems to have given Alfons a new sense of clarity — on his new album Joyland, he mostly abandons Trust’s typically surly lo-fi sound for production that’s polished to a disconcertingly perfect sheen.
Alfons, a nightlife photographer-turned-musician, also exhibits some surprising new influences, channeling the buoyant dance-pop of mid-’90s groups like Ace of Base into an off-kilter, heightened pop music with strong roots in rave. The best example is the album’s candy-coated title track, which reworks the prettiest elements of happy hardcore into a compact pop structure. That humanoid ebullience provides the blueprint for Joyland‘s most dizzying peaks, such as “Rescue, Mister” and “Peer Pressure,” which both culminate in feverish synthesizer themes.
But the surprising thing about Joyland is that despite its synthetic surface, there’s an impressive depth and range of emotion on display, a quality that was difficult to find in the uniform gloom of Trst. Alfons’s vocals here come in a Crayola set’s worth of new shades, swinging wildly from cartoonish falsetto to guttural growls. “Lost Souls/Eelings,” a gorgeous confection of high-wire singing, sounds like it might have evolved from a one-man karaoke version of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” And there’s also a fair amount of sadness in Joyland. At the album’s midpoint, the slow-building, melismatic “Are We Arc?” finds Alfons admitting: “I’m getting used to the loneliest of sounds.” That candid sentiment points to Joyland‘s appealing contradictions. Alfons’s music sounds most full of life at its most artificial, most isolated when it’s emotionally forthcoming, and most inclusive as a soundtrack to being alone in a crowd.