“You think the sun’s come out and the tides have changed / and there’s a god upstairs and he knows your name,” Zen Mantra sings on “Second Skin”, questioning some of the optimism others cling to. New Zealander Sam Perry does cutting lines like these excruciatingly well. The 21-year-old bedroom producer, who’s one-quarter of the shimmery cross-continental synthpop act Yumi Zouma, has seen a lot since his last record, 2013’s sprawling How Many Padmes Hum?. His forthcoming self-titled sophomore LP grew out of songs written over the course of the past three years—that’s practically half his teen years—which Perry says covered a lot of emotional ground.
“Years went by, years spent finishing high school, falling in love, touring the world for the first time and coping with the sudden death of my father, my relationships changed, my relationship to music changed—I scrapped a few records, and the one I ended up finishing got bent severely out of shape,” Perry says. Zen Mantra came out a lot darker, in sound and content, than he first set out to make it. “In the end I wanted to make something that felt like a pop record, but with an underlying sense of dissonance. Something that for most part is quite energetic and rhythm-heavy, but without forgoing any atmospheric qualities.”
The dissonance is deeply felt. The name for Perry’s project was plucked from Sonic Boom’s liner notes, and Peter Kember’s influence is deeply felt in the production on the record—but Zen Mantra’s sometimes a bit of a misnomer, given there’s something quite shaken and unsettled here. It opens with the trembling psychedelic “Will Disappear”, in which Perry’s voice rattles out, “I can’t shake—can’t shake—that everyone—everyone—will disappear.” It’s nerve-wracking, but it hardly foreshadows what’s to come—the songs on this record range from sultry psychedelic tunes like “Will Disappear” to feathery dream pop and surf rock. Thoughtful repetition abounds so that images and feelings are cemented in memory—there’s an urgency to what’s being said, and with vocal lines as ethereal as these it’s hard not to hang onto every word. His tone’s mean and snarling on “Dimming Son” against the speeding bassline, but on songs like “Bailey” he’s softened, sweetly reminding a loved one that “no one can take your place, I swear” over ringing guitars. Genuine sincerity is at its height in the picture of loss he brings with “Maybe I’ll See You In My Dreams”. It shifts from a near-anger articulated via forked vocal harmonies and spacey synths that recall Congratulations-era MGMT—to a son’s total love and longing with the pounding, hopeful lines “Oh you’re coming home from work / you’re walking through the front door / you’re calling out my name from the bottom of the stairs again.” He repeats this mantra three times, each time with greater intensity, embracing some of the optimism he questioned, and you want to fall into the expanding dream with him.
Zen Mantra will be out April 15 on Flying Nun. You can stream the album in full below.