New artist within the highlight: David Thompson takes his synth pop significantly with ‘The Wall’
The resurgence of indie synth pop in the late 00s and early 10s was a kind of fresh air in a musical climate that had previously been fairly strictly divided between pop, EDM and indie. Works like M83, Cut / Copy, Hot Chip. Phantogram and even the Yeah Yeah Yeahs took the new synthesizers and mods designed for EDM and Pop and ran with them. Moog was reinstalled in its rightful place at the top of the Synth Pantheon, and it looked like the fusion of indie rock and EDM was going to explode in the 2010s.
While the aforementioned bands are still around doing great things, indie synth pop hit a plateau around 2010 and the scene split again, or rather, a lot of the synth and electronic artists started doing pop music and indie rock, while finding more acceptance of synth intervention, declined somewhat by analogy. It seems the precedent was set, however, and it was only a matter of time before the indie synth was back up and running. This year seems to be that time, and it makes sense when you think about it; It is quite difficult to bring an entire orchestra into your shelter while synthesizers are portable and easy to sanitize.
Philadelphia artist David Thompson’s career has followed the indie synthesizer path in terms of timeline, although that’s not exactly the purpose. Thompson, who was a continuation of the Philly indie scene with his band Big Tusk between 2012 and 2014, put his synthesizers aside in a more meaningful way to address the human rights concerns he is passionate about. During this time he founded the Philly Tenants Union and Philly Workers for Dignity to improve living and working conditions in his hometown. He started working again with another local band in 2017 and recently went solo. His new EP The Wall is his second solo release.
Both Thompson’s human rights work and this EP were launched before the COVID hit, but now they have even more meaning and are downright prophetic. Both tenants and workers need help with all the downtime and housing crises more than ever, and similarly, The Wall is hitting a whole new tone with the recent events. With his title track, which is presumably about Trump’s failed xenophobic wall project and all the things it represents in the socio-political climate of the last four years, Thompson lyrically hits no lyrical hits in this EP. It’s not subtle and neither should it be. “Time” describes prison, which is a daily working life for many people, while “This Goon Cant”, “Clair” and “Obsession” are more personal but still point to time that has been lost due to the current time.
Where’s the synth pop with all these blatant lyrics and messages? It agrees with the texts mentioned. Thompson channels his inner Duran Duran, Kraftwerk and Cut / Copy and plays the lyrics along with optimistic, complex and sometimes a little scary synth work. “Time” has a nostalgic, “Girls on Film” -style beat, but also channels Thompson’s other great musical influence, the classic anthems. In fact, Thompson says that most of the tracks on The Wall have classical influences on them, but on “Time” it’s definitely front and middle. As an avid choir participant, the church’s organ-like keys are an entertaining secondary melody in “Time” and add a sort of Gothic Joy Division-like undertone.
Next comes the title track on the EP, which has the greatest contrast between lyrics and music. The synthesizers in “The Wall” screech almost unbearably happy while the choir literally talks about the “dirty work” of the wall. It’s supposed to seem wrong, tense, and a little bit scared, just like the climate in the US since that wall was threatened. “The Goon Cant” was co-written by Michael Muller and has probably the most thoughtful musical work on The Wall. It’s also most introspective lyrically, so it makes sense. Presumably about his own personal failings, there seems to be a touch of politics there too, as the lyrics evoke thoughts on the dangers of demagogy and the confusing legacy of baby boomers for the younger generations.
The bottom of The Wall are two other personal tracks. “Clair” is a surprising rock-bop from the 70s that conjures up Elvis Costello in general tone or even The Mamas and The Papas in terms of synthesizers. This track shows even more of Thompson’s compositional spectrum, as he had Howe Pearson from TV Pole Shine on guitar and clearly designed the track around this extraordinary guitar work. Eventually, “Obsession” goes straight back to the ultra-synth while it comes to some pretty dark lyrics about internet stalking and life in the past. The contrast is back and the music is meant to be futuristic as a commentary on the current state of human connection.
You almost feel guilty dancing to the infectious poppies on The Wall, but it’s clearly a danceable guilt trip. Or, if you’re a half full guy, maybe it is meant to remind us to dance and enjoy music, art, and love, even with everything that is going on in the world and in our own hearts. We can still connect to ourselves after all, and synth pop is a great way to get there. Meanwhile, acts like David Thompson are contributing to indie synth pop 3.0 with clean, technically solid work, and no matter what it is, we’re definitely here for that.
The Wall is available now and can be purchased at Bandcamp or streamed on Spotify.