School of Seven Bell’s fourth and likely final album is one that will forever be defined by its context. In this case, however, it’s justifiable. Following former bandmate Benjamin Curtis’ death in 2013, the project took an indefinite hiatus before returning to release what newly lone member Alejandra Dehaza describes as a “love letter from start to finish”, consisting of songs written with Curtis during the summer of 2012. SVIIB doesn’t really haunt on this narrative, though. Rather, the arrangements straddle the line between a proper send-off and a complete disregard for the context entirely, making an otherwise sweet sentiment into one of muddied confusion.
Dehaza has been on record saying that the lyrics focus on her friendship with Curtis, and through close listens some allusions do start to pop up. “Music Takes Me” stands as one of the more obvious songs following this narrative, as she breathily croons lines like “These days/I’m feeling the sun come through” amidst a dreamy synth-laden backdrop. “One Thousand Times More” follows the same pattern, albeit in a much more direct manner. It’s one of the few moments within the record that feels like a memorialization of Curtis; a satisfying nod to those keeping the context in mind. Thankfully, these lines are spaced out well within the record, and it never feels as though SVIIB comes through with any sort of ham-fisted goodbyes. Instead, the lyrics tend to be more or less serviceable, bland enough to where any sort of storyline is obscured but dreamy enough to where they don’t slog the record down in any shape or form. Dehaza’s hazy delivery stands as a bit generic for most of the album, but they feel natural amidst the instrumentals laid before her.
Unfortunately, the instrumentals themselves aren’t too adept to taking center stage. This isn’t to say they’re bad per se; in fact, the production throughout is well-done and the synth sounds tend to act as an uplifting refinement of their original style. However, as a whole, SVIIB sounds way too close to its fellow contemporaries to really stand out on its own. Pieces of other, similarly bland acts find their way onto the album, and the result seems to be less of an homage and more of a copy. “On My Heart” is the most egregious offender, with an opening that rips a certain Chvrches song so much (and so poorly) that it nearly ruins the track, effectively sucking out any hopes of the album retaining its own entity, instead delivering poorly reminiscent manifestations of already uninspired songs.
Still, SVIIB comes away with a few successes, one of the bigger ones being “Open Your Eyes”. Featuring a stellar vocal performance on Dehaza’s part, the song provides the more refined songwriting found on previous records, if perhaps a bit more streamlined. Elsewhere, “Confusion” finds the album taking a necessary detour into calmer dream-pop territory, complete with otherworldly, Panda Bear-esque sound effects streaking across the track. It’s the lone slow song on an album of uptempo synth pop numbers, but it’s the one track that ends too soon, leaving a longing for more like it.
But this really isn’t a record for the listener anyway. As Dehaza noted, it’s a love letter from start to finish, but it’s really not so much between her and her fans as it is between her and her former bandmate. Sure, the message is obscured through the uptempo lyrics and ambivalent lyricism. Yeah, a lot of the tracks fail to form their one identity, crutching onto a brand of already established normality. But in the end, what matters most about SVIIB is that what was started has now been finished, in the vision of both who is alive and who has passed. And really, could there be any cleaner of an ending than that?
– Brock S.