by Nick Hanover
Something in the DNA of most artists compels them to constantly wonder about and distort their identities. The ones who fuck with identity the most– the David Bowies and Madonnas and Princes of the world– seem to enjoy the longest, most fruitful careers, as that wandering aspect provokes them to stay perpetually on their toes, shedding not only their original names but anything resembling their original lives, shifting faces and sounds at the whim of the unseen creative force of the universe. R&B chameleon Mobley may not have the platform of those three titans just yet, but there’s a reason his merch bluntly asks “Who?” and it’s not out of self-deprecation. It’s because with Mobley’s work, you never who he’ll be in any given moment.
The musical polymath’s latest release, Fresh Lies Vol. 1, builds on his permeability in truly ambitious ways, connecting the question of who to his ancestors as well as his sound in what Mobley states will be a multi-volume series, with “a volume for each generation of his family since his ancestors were first brought to the continent.” That may sound like a lot to take in– and truthfully, it is– but Mobley is nothing if not a pleaser and what stands out perhaps even more than the ambition is how easily Mobley makes the concept go down.
The conceit is at its best on “Young Adult Fiction,” the second single Mobley released ahead of the LP. Questioning and seductive, “Young Adult Fiction” represents everything Mobley as an artist stands for, from the collision of seemingly disparate styles– in this case, spy flick guitar lines, glitched out pop, sorrowful navelgazing– to its identity focused lyrics. “All your life, all your life/You’ve been wondering/Who it is you’re supposed to be/What it is you’re supposed to see” chants Mobley in the chorus, as much to himself as the subject, before declaring “the future is at home.” Which of course only prompts the necessary follow-up: where and what is home?
If there’s an answer to that question to be found on Fresh Lies, it’s likely to be found on album closer “Native Sun,” where a tropical beat and warm melody frame Mobley’s dreams of where his family came from. On “Native Sun,” Mobley opens up about his fears that he is an emotional island, connecting that in turn to the Caribbean origins of his ancestors, who he fears he’s letting down by allowing himself to be “stranded in the ocean” of modern life. For Mobley, home isn’t a concrete place or idea, it’s something to aspire to, a balance between past, present and future, between hope and survival.
It’s easy to see why, then, the album shines when Mobley directly confronts that internal conflict and the outside forces who amplify and encourage it. Mobley’s journey as an artist over the past couple years has involved collaborating and sharing stages with artists who deal with that same subject in more heightened and aggressive ways, like Blastfamous USA and BLXPLTN, and there are aspects of both groups in album opener “Hound the World,” albeit smoothened by Mobley’s natural charisma.
Dominated by big buzzy synths and a futurist twist on Afrobeat vocal phrasing (a style, it must be said, most listeners now associate with white artists like tUnE-yArds and Vampire Weekend, bringing the themes of “Native Sun” full circle), “Hound the World” is Mobley at his most aggro. The track still builds to a massive pop chorus, but the vocal manipulation, industrial production and layers and layers of fuzz all add a jagged edge to Mobley’s occasionally too smooth demeanor and approach.
Those latter components of Mobley’s sound are in fact what make the middle section of the album sometimes drag, as much from sequencing as anything else. The invigorating pairing of “Hound the World” and “Young Adult Fiction” makes the overly radio friendly threesome “Torch,” “Tell Me” and “Selfsame” somewhat underwhelming by contrast. It isn’t until the perfectly named “Swoon” that the album recovers, specifically because it has Mobley once again operating in more adventurous terrain, throwing together island percussion, a trip hop bassline and drum beat and a devilishly smooth vocal, all of which blend together better than they have any right to.
Nonetheless, Fresh Lies‘ weakpoints are really only weak in the context of the album’s breathtaking highs, proof that the biggest problem with Mobley’s absurd talent is that it means the singer-producer-designer-instrumentalist is always going to have to work overtime to top his own achievements. Perhaps that’s the crux of Mobley’s “who?” outlook on life– constantly shifting identities isn’t just a way of staying fresh, after all, it’s a way of perpetually resetting the clock and getting a new start.
Mobley plays Empire Control Room on Saturday, July 7th as part of Blastfamous USA’s block party with Fort Never and BLXPLTN
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover