“I tend to experience my life as a dream often, so I tried to encapsulate that,” says Garrett Sale in press for his new album, Push Ups (Sony Masterworks). He’s referring to the song “Slow Records” and its stream-of-consciousness storytelling, but it could just as easily apply to the rest of his sophomore album as William Wild, which deftly uses dream-like sounds and structures to build a heightened sense of pop emotion.
Like his self-released 2016 EP Steady Now, Push Ups is stirring and cinematic. It’s also a highly stylized album with a maximalist production edge. Nearly everything is warped, delayed, or processed to make it as enchantingly surreal as possible. Vocals leap up and down by octaves and cascading pianos crash in from nowhere. A banjo or harp appears to play a few notes and then vanish–a sparkling ornamentation, like one letter of a manuscript illuminated in gold leaf. Other times, the tracks feel stylishly rough-cut, like deckled edges on a book. At the end of the opening track “Let Me Know,” everything cuts off but the tambourine and brass, and you hear just a few seconds of exhaled air.
You know those dreams where you walk into a room, but suddenly it’s your high school, and you didn’t study for the final? Push Ups is an album that twists through free-associational turns that you never think to question, except in hindsight. From its ghostly intro, “Let Me Know” shifts from one synth and string-laden section to the next–free of the verse-chorus-verse structure, Sale falls into a big, cathartic hook by surprise, and it hits like a sigh of relief. It’s a super-catchy sucker punch, and he uses the same technique to darker ends elsewhere. On “Pictures (the push ups),” an unexpected electronic buildup grips the track with fearful intensity. All of these moments keep his song structures obscure, but never unnatural; the seams between ideas are always well-covered.
The album’s richest textures land at the intersection of the organic and synthetic, or maybe the real and the hyper-real. The Rhodes piano and warbling synth on “All My Life” come to mind. In the past, Sale has shown he knows well how to craft a melody, but what he proves on Push Ups is that he can also bend sound on a more fundamental level. Take “Hard Lines, Hard Times.” The processing on his voice crackles with faint static, making it even more delicate than his falsetto, in that way vocaloids can sometimes feel more emotive than human singers. Combined with the steel guitar that’s appeared on much of his past work–arguably one of the most reliably heart-string-tugging instruments of all–it melts into a larger-than-life atmosphere.
The sheer size of the production makes the words difficult to focus on, but the feelings are there in force. At the same time, there’s a fresh kind of reticence from Sale’s lyrics that wasn’t so up front on his past releases. He wonders aloud on “Wound Up” whether it’s any good talking so much or so loud–then he delivers one of the album’s most beautiful and memorable piano and horn lines. Wherever he comes out on the words, Push Ups shows Sale is as potent a stylist as he is a songwriter.