There are some sounds you could live in forever. A wobbly Jeff Buckley lick, for instance, or an impassioned Otis Redding syllable, or a Sigur Ros build. And Daniel Caesar, an R&B singer from Toronto, has one of those sounds on his debut album, “Freudian.” it’s a technicolor synth riser at the album’s halfway point on “Loose,” ever so slowly bubbling and growing in intensity and complexity and volume, like a lush waterfall, a pillowy ultralight beam, a silken Rainbow Road. It’s so languidly immaculate you wouldn’t fault Caesar for sitting on it for several minutes, or the rest of the way.
But when it hits its peak there’s a sudden needle scratch, and white noise floods the recording. What had been an elaborate studio masterpiece of perfectly EQd synth-and-bass gives way to Caesar in a dusty piano room recording on Voice Memos. It’s initially puzzling why Caesar would interrupt a perfect sound so callously. But these polar swings give “Freudian” its stunning vitality. He makes one shrewd, spellbinding production choice after another, each of which peels back layers of intimacy into his talent and psyche. The next Frank Ocean has arrived.
“Freudian” can be read as a deep dive on Caesar’s attempt to build both an album and a relationship at the same time. The first building block is beauty. Caesar’s girl is beautiful, and so his music must be too. And “Freudian” is an audiophile’s paradise, filled with buttery guitars and snares that snap like fresh baguettes and bright plinking pianos that gently pan from one ear to the other. The guitar on “Hold Me Down” drips with honeyed reverb and then crunches on the low end. The solemn, vaguely baroque choir on “Neu Roses” flickers with the burnished intensity of Stevie Wonder’s best vocal arrangements. And the crown jewel of “Freudian’s” soundscape is Caesar’s voice itself. It’s a wheel of wet clay waiting to be molded, turning from jaunty hip-hop cadence to stately alto on a dime.
But it’s all too easy to fall in love with pure beauty, which is meaningless if hollow. Caesar knows this. He knows his voice is beautiful to the point that it lacks an edge; it’s a pristine beacon emitting in one way. And so in an effort for intimacy and empathy he creates scabs in his music and picks at them. He ruins those sublime thirty seconds in “Loose” with a phone ring and a listless, emasculating semi-apology from a woman whose attention is clearly elsewhere. He cuts into his glittering keyboards on “Transform” with harsh fret noises. He interrupts the virginal church choir on “Neu Roses” with a sweaty slow jam in which he loses control of his tongue and slurs bitterly, but not before wandering into a distorted, whirring sound clip of a speech. He throws in suspensions and chord subs and jazz voicings and found sounds. All of these choices transform both of the album’s aims–the music and the relationship–from a perfume ad into an urgent, unpredictable affair.
And nowhere is this more apparent than on one of the year’s very best songs, “Blessed.” The first gorgeous verse features him sitting at a piano, confessing an unhealthy codependency: “I don’t want to be there / Don’t want to be anywhere / Any place I can’t feel you.” When admits to being a “mess” on the chorus, he withdraws into vulnerable falsetto on a note he easily could have hit in his head voice. You think that he’s hit a peak level of intimacy. But once again, his baby grand turns into a crackling Voice Memo recording. You hear him murmuring out the bones of the song; you hear the process of what you thought was always fully formed being messily willed into existence. You feel that, even if you don’t have that magical voice, that could be you fidgeting at the piano, and that could be you falling that deeply in love.
And it’s only then, after he’s receded into his radical interiority, that he feels the confidence to add an organ, and then some ghostly harmonies, and then a guitar, and then a bass, and then a full choir, in an utterly rapturous buildup that feels possessed. It’s a trembling, gratifying end point to a journey that Caesar has forged before our eyes.