Nick Thorburn is probably from something you know. From fronting groups such as Islands, Mister Heavenly, and The Unicorns, to composing the soundtrack to the award-winning podcast Serial, Thorburn stays prolific. His latest effort, City of Quartz, sees Thorburn going solo as “Nick Diamonds,” incorporating his past works—and some new ideas—in for maximum effect.
The instrumental title track opens the album with a sinister-sounding bass underscoring some plucked psychedelic guitar. Immaculately looped 8-bit coin-noises are juxtaposed next to deep, rounded synths—two minutes in and the beat cuts into a volatile synthesizer solo over (what sounds like) an overly-caffeinated woodpecker. This album could go anywhere.
Interestingly enough, Diamonds immediately pivots away from the sinister, minor-keyed banger, opting for sunnier-sounding quirky pop, largely reminiscent of his work in The Unicorns. Diamonds deals heavily in brevity throughout, most notably in his piano melodies. However, he maintains the musical themes established in the opener by layering wobbly synths under his infectious melodies. Diamonds has employed electro and synthetic aspects into his work before, but never this broadly.
“Where is the Elephant” and “What Can the Sun,” among others, feature impossibly catchy piano lines over some zany electro backgrounds. When Diamonds isn’t drawing from past work, the album often sounds like early work by indie darlings Matt & Kim. Diamonds’ delivery hovers around the nasally optimism of the titular Matt, with the melodies having the trappings of keyboard-driven, indie pop.
Thematically, Diamonds seems to be conjuring vignettes centered on the inhabitants of the City of Quartz. The dark opening seemed to describe the City of Quartz itself, a looming monster of a place, while the rest of the album gives the city some humanity.
In “Love is Stranger,” Diamonds envisions the hopeless romantic as a bad actor—past relationships having failed because “I forgot my lines and missed my mark.” Conversely, “Bohemian Groove,” is a love-story for the millennial generation. Peppy, muted keys over analog synthesizers create a happy-go-lucky effect, while Diamonds sings, “Like a wave, I crash into you all day/C’mon let’s misbehave, they’ll let us do anything we say.” For the moment, things seem perfectly in place.
Not every inhabitant of the City of Quartz is looking for love, though. “Ungrievable Lives” and “The Mind Reels” take darker, more somber tones. The latter has some serious imagery attached to it: “Jumped in front of a dream, caught my coat by the seem/and at my heels I felt the wheels, pulling me under again,” Diamonds croons, playing an unfortunate fantasy over in his head as, “the mind reels.”
In 2012, Diamonds and Brooklyn rapper El-P collaborated on the tracks “Stay Down” and “Movie Tit.” El-P specializes in thundering, percussive analog hip hop, making the mechanically cacophonous uniquely listenable. For City of Quartz, Diamonds seems to have taken a page from El-P, using dark, rounded, and wobbly synths to anchor his latest offering to a cohesive sound. The addition of his signature upbeat pop and abstract lyrics give the album a “summer in the city” feel. Overall, Diamonds’ latest demonstrates what he’s been doing for the last 12 years: making versatile pop music that is the best kind of weird.
Recommended if you Like | Matt & Kim, The Unicorns, Islands
Rec Tracks | City of Quartz, Witch Window, Where is the Elephant, Bohemian Groove