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It’s only been a year since New Zealand’s Yumi Zouma debuted with Yoncalla, a polished batch of ten disco-infused indie pop tracks. But the Kiwi quartet have already returned with follow-up Willowbank, a subdued collection of dreamy songs that explore the fundamentally modern confusion between perception and reality. So much of life these days is defined by how we wish to be perceived by others – the endless highlight reel that is Instagram, the urge to appear “chill” to friends and lovers despite internal floundering. Yumi Zouma expertly deals in what-ifs and hypotheticals on this record, floating in the gap between what we wish for and what we have. It delves into the past tense, like they’re recounting something with the wisdom of hindsight.
The low-key softness of this record is a marked departure from the first. While it retains some of the disco levity of Yoncalla, they tone it down here; lyrics aside, the music itself sounds like you’re telling a secret. This intimacy could perhaps be lent to the recording – Yoncalla marked the first time Yumi Zouma had been able to write and record music in the same place (a natural disaster in New Zealand having forced them to write earlier music across oceans over e-mail), but they were on tour, which infused the sound with a certain energy. This time around, they recorded Willowbank together in New Zealand, and it shows. It’s warm, muted; it feels cozy like home.
It opens with “Depths (Pt. I),” where Christie Simpson’s voice drops in with a more natural comfort, deeper and more self-assured. But she asks “If I was older, then would you still let me win?” Already, we’ve departed from reality “as is” and entered reality “if” as her voice flows into the chorus: “Under the boot of my desire to be / Never taking myself that seriously.” In other words, confined to the image we wish to project to the rest of the world, unruffled and “going with the flow.”
With this in mind, they play with the concept of an unreliable narrator on this album. If we carefully curate our self-presentation, who’s to say what’s true and what isn’t? Simpson sings, “I never struggled to be on my own,” but she also desires to never take herself seriously. If she did struggle to be on her own, would she tell us? As the record slides into the next track, single “December,” she espouses more of this guardedness. “You can’t rely on my past,” she sings, unpacking the way we divulge our baggage in bits and pieces to keep from scaring others away. It’s doused in feigned detachment, as though spoken to someone you once knew very intimately but haven’t seen in years.
The cool quiet of the album – its dulled percussion, swooping melodies – mirrors a world where the distance between real and unreal is always shrinking, where people blow off plans and mask isolation with social clout. On “Half Hour,” which FADER deemed “a love song about death,” she sings, “All my plans are flakes,” bemoaning anxieties about the solitude of dying. On “Gabriel,” she describes “a lie to protect my shame,” exploring the way we become lost when we define ourselves only by our relationship to someone else.
In the end, Willowbank circles back to its beginning with “Depths (Pt II),” which asks the same question: “If I was older, then would you still let me win?” To come back to this exposes the cyclical folly of it all and articulates the lesson Yumi Zouma were trying to impart all along: that unless you learn to accept the present as is, you’ll always be asking “what if?”