Sometime in early 2017, when re-shelving scores at the music library (my job at the time) I found a “21st-century songbook,” about the same size and shape as the copies of the “Great American Songbook” that were a few shelves away. It had piano reductions, chords and the fully noted melodies for pop songs from 2000-2011.
It was odd to see these songs represented this way. Like many other people my age, I experienced these songs as sound first, and I didn’t have to seek them out — I heard them on tinny school bus speakers, on phone speakers, in the background at grocery stores. They seemed too ubiquitous to be boiled down into notes on a page.
Is it even possible to reduce most music in the 21st century to notation? Increasingly, the role of the producer isn’t to realize a composition or even to create something from nothing, but to act like a sort of sonic beachcomber, collecting bits and pieces of sound from everywhere, layering and warping them like a collage artist. With the dissolution of rigid genre boundaries comes a heady, ceiling-less world of sonic possibility.
The producer and singer-songwriter Rostam Batmanglij (who performs and records under his first name) is a producer who leaves the seams from this process audible, and the result is disarming and totally unique. His 2017 album “Half-Light” has this oddly half-finished quality to it, like all the screws haven’t been tightened and the levels haven’t been quite adjusted all the way. Most of these songs are about a minute too long but it doesn’t bother me a bit, because the soundworld of this album is so wonderfully luminous that I feel like I could live in it. Orchestral strings, burbling digital synthesizers and Middle Eastern instruments drift through a sonic landscape that seems to hover over the main current of musical history. He sings quietly but forcefully, and is equally capable of a fluttery falsetto as he is of a no-holds-barred yell (“Rudy” has both in quick succession). There are gestures of outright anachronism, like the Baroque accompaniment figures in “Sumer” and “Don’t Let It Get To You” that could have been shaken from the pages of an introductory music theory text, and almost bizarrely futuristic moments, like the almost unintelligibly distorted spoken word bit at the end of “When.” The album consistently defies expectations, even within songs. The songs dissolve into anarchic tangles of sound or just stop entirely before resuming.
Several writers and interviewers have pointed out the specific queer energy of Rostam’s music — he has said that he wants to make music that everyone can relate to, and of course his songwriting is generally vague enough that it could let in a multiplicity of meanings. Certainly, it’s irresponsible to read someone’s work as if it’s only an expression of one particular identity, but it’s equally irresponsible to ignore it in favor of the “universal” (which always ends up skewing normative despite our best efforts).
The queerness of his music is probably more apparent sonically than lyrically. The album simply does not sound like very much else that exists, thoroughly repurposing anything it inherits. The lyrics are vague, suggestions rather than statements. There’s a lot in this album about liminality paired with vastness, suggesting the morning and the ocean. He alludes to desires that sometimes lack a referent, the simple desire for something unnameable. On “Rudy”: “Rudy said ‘what do you want that nobody else has thought about? / Rudy said ‘I want it now / But I don’t know how to say it / Anyway I thought it was.” On “Don’t Let It Get To You”: “I want to, even when it don’t make sense, even when it don’t make sense / Actually I want to more when you don’t make sense.” The album seems to suggest a better world that doesn’t quite exist yet, one that we can catch snatches of in moments of tenderness — on the title track, he sings “somewhere, in the half-light, I could feel it coming true.”