by Eryn Brothers
When recalling a past romantic relationship, nothing stays in chronological order. The past and the present convalesce in a constant oroborus, twisting around teller and listener. I’ve had these teary, lucid conversations with dear friends, I’ve overheard them in bar bathrooms, the conversation ramping into a smeared eyeliner and beer frenzy. I’ve eavesdropped on them hushed and adult in coffee shops, or heard them belted across grocery stores, which oddly is a place where people feel very comfortable unveiling their melodramas loudly.
I’ve also heard these same conversations on TC Superstar’s new album, R&D.
R&D is a concept album surrounding the tumultuous first romance of Ricky and Dana, a tale rife with recollections of the two characters damned to hurt each other. Full of emotionally charged tracks, bubblegum Cure-esque guitars and plummy synth melodies, R&D is nostalgic and wistful, like a tube of soda flavored chapstick. It’s got its time and place, as do certain forms of romance. This is the main theme of R&D: the gauze of time, our own identities and needs as romantic people, all in the neon playscape of synth charged pop. The play on words for the album title is also a clever twist: research and development is how you get to know things, and love is no different.
TC Superstar (and Connor McCampbell, the mastermind lead vocalist behind the project) has a fantastic ear for ‘70’s and ‘80’s dance music. The lyrics are surprisingly and unassumingly poetic against the splash of synth and electric beat. You feel like you are reading someone’s journal in the most beautiful mall you have ever been in while listening to R&D. However, unlike other synthpop bands of yore, this album is not about the climax in noise, the orchestrations of drum and lyrics wildly melding into danceable cacophony, but a build that never seems to satisfy. The narrative of the tracks is non-linear, woven together by melodic references to previous songs, reminiscent of a discussion between friends about love and what to do with it when it is done.
The conversational aspect of the album is purposeful as there are thoughtful spoken word intros and outros. While this may be affectatious at best when utilized by other groups, cheesy at worst, it really works for R&D. Not only does it give you a feeling akin to talking with your best friend at a show about your broken heart, it gives the album and the songs that follow a trajectory that is not forced.
“We, we need to be able to see other people…because I don’t see a future per say, with just you anymore,” is spoken matter of factly before “Ricky, If You Want Me.” “He puts his head on the edge of my coat,” Connor croons observantly, his voice braced, “He says that he hates spending these nights alone.” The lyrics rear themselves back, mimicking the couple fighting, with Connors cutting himself off as effect during the chorus. “But Ricky, if you want me/You will realize/Ricky/If you want me/You will realize/I need more than/Only one,” is backed by melodies that follow the pacing of a fight with a solid, danceable backbone. As the song undulates in a frenzy of arpeggiations, we understand that Ricky needs to possess Dana and Dana wants to be able to love Ricky in her own way-and that way is not monogamy. They both want each other, but neither seem yielding or willing to put their differences aside and grow-it’s force that ultimately causes their growth.
Throughout R&D, we listen to how love has many faces, with Connors frequently splitting up the narrative between Ricky and Dana, allowing their own voices to be heard through his vessel.Their narratives contradict each other constantly, projecting secret desires on the other, changing their needs incessantly. From the start, the album introduces two sides of Ricky and Dana’s love life, exploring how two people in the same relationship can view things very differently. “Dana Be Mine,” (with the unstoppable Mary Bryce providing backup vocals) starts with keys in an ignition, and the two narrators discuss being young and impetuous, of first love and fooling around in cars. The album moves into “Something Real,” where the chorus rends itself open: “What’s it like to be/In something real?/Do you want that with me?/Show me how it feels.” It’s a song about finally falling in real love, tugging at all the right heart strings, wondering if it will be enough.
This intelligent songwriting creates an arc and character without inserting the writer’s voice forcefully and thus disrupting the narrative. Remarkably, each song is also extremely danceable and fun. Damn. We see jealousy and the pain of a long distance relationship in “Wait for Me,” (“He’s on my mind/While she’s on his hip,”) we wait for late night phone calls and the emotional disparity that can come from them (“NightCaller”) and the bargaining of distrust that comes from wanting to be needed, how we project former loves onto current ones (“Ricky Ruin Me,” which features Blair Howerton of Why Bonnie) We mourn the past and get the post break up blues in “I’ve Been Thinking Bout You,” and contemplate infidelity in “One and Only.” In “Dana’s Song,” we experience that ultimate tragedy of the need to be let go of but not forgotten. I’ve been there. So have you. It’s equally as gutting if you can dance to that feeling, believe me.
In the titular track, “R&D,” we are allowed to understand their past (and ultimately, our own forlorn remembrances of youth and love lost) with the lush first verse, where Connors gives us a backdrop of “golden kumquats,” and “sticky t-shirts.” The vocal melody is followed by the synth, and “I said, Ricky, I hope summer always feels this good,” gets drawn out. The song ramps: “Oh, we’ve been friends/Such a long time,” swinging a bouncy beat, a joyful kind of sadness not easily conveyed in most music, but very apparent on this track. This song should floor you, because as you listen, we find with Dana that summer is not forever, and neither is youth. Neither Ricky nor Dana can survive this relationship because they are both firmly stuck between past and future, with no resolve in the present. Many relationships die because of semantics, yet R&D flourishes while examining that heavy weight.
The album ends with “Into You.” Dulcet tones and loping head beats guide us out of the tumult and heartbreak, a beautiful vulnerability after a long bout of pain. It escalates hopefully as Connors sings in his honest way about falling in love easily and trying to be unafraid of emotion. “Are you into me?/Like I’m into you?” is sung as sweetly and shyly as a note passed in class. Love hurts, starting over is scary and exciting. The song grows steadily, wanting to break. Spoken over these teenage melodies, the album ends with the words, “I’m just starting to feel like there are better ways to love people.”
Maybe there are. If there’s one thing that R&D encourages, it’s that experience and the non-linear ribbon of romance is one to be explored. TC Superstar has done a savvy, polished job of mingling storytelling and pop music, a dance symposium about love for us to sadly shuffle to. Connors, our multifaceted narrator, tells the story of Ricky and Dana while giving us room to think about our own. So here’s to sad conversations, poeticizing your life, how good it feels to dance after your soul’s been crushed, and how good it is to do it all over again until it finally works, whatever your way of “works” is. With catchy choruses, thoughtful lyrics, and beautiful melodies, R&D is a damn good soundtrack for such endeavors.
TC Superstar play Pennyfest on Saturday, August 31st at Barracuda