There’s something rather pleasing about a serious subject wrapped in sweet pop packaging. And there are few more serious subjects than science. Constantly under attack from religious conservatives and conspiracy theorists, it potentially holds the key to planet earth’s survival in the face of ecological erosion. The new record from US synthpop duo Reed & Caroline, their second for Vince Clarke’s Very Records, zeroes in on this theme with irresistible style.
On their first album, the excellent ‘Buchla & Singing’, folk songwriter Caroline Schutz and synth sorcerer Reed Hays set compositions about such offbeat subjects as the beauty of washing machines or the lifecycle of earthworms to infectious electronic melodies and pristine beats. Written entirely with a Buchla synth, underpinning it all is an appreciation for living matter as much as machines — oh, and a love for science as the governing factor uniting them both.
Throughout ‘Hello Science’, the pair dive deeper into the subject, with an urgency driven by the ecological and moral decay they’ve witnessed on their home turf.
“In these troubling political times, people are putting science into question,” Reed says about the new record.
“It’s almost like a faith that’s being outlawed. Because of that, ‘Hello Science’ became really personal for me.”
This new tone is apparent from the opener ‘Before’: a poignant electropop paean to the limited natural resources of the planet. Emotive synth sequences are complemented by compassionate cello, while Caroline, in her crystalline voice, sings about how we need to take care of the ancient artefacts of the earth before we lose them forever.
Just as Reed & Caroline’s songs have become less whimsical and more critical, their musical palette has expanded. The presence of cello is just one indication of the broadening of their scope. They’ve also added another vintage synth to their setup: the Vako Orchestron, a kind of mini Mellotron that Kraftwerk used on ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘Radio-Activity’. For ‘Hello Science’, Reed sampled Caroline’s voice and fed it back into the synth to create eerie textures.
‘Dark Matter’, meanwhile, is an excursion into punk rock, with live bass and guitar over which Caroline asks whether dark matter (the fabric that supposedly holds the universe together) matters; yet this weighty subject is sugar coated with irresistible hooks.
‘It’s Science’ is a classical cello arrangement, over which Caroline sings, “Please don’t be afraid of what you don’t already know / It will all unfold, it doesn’t have to be a show / Formulate hypotheses and gather all the facts / Put your model to the test and see how it reacts”. While she’s vocalising about the process of scientific experiments, this careful logic could be a message to ‘Flat Earthers’, espousers of fake news or creationists.
This rigorous scientific approach is similar to how Reed works on his compositions and deals with the world too.
“Reed really uses science as a way to cope with things,” Caroline says. “It’s a way of making yourself feel better about those issues by looking at them from a scientific perspective.”
Reed & Caroline don’t consider science and its by-products to be entirely benevolent. Technology is portrayed as threatening on ‘Internet Of Things’: Caroline sings about the coffee maker talking to the washing machine, how everything is interconnected, and how notions of privacy are increasingly diminished, as conversations are snooped on by companies through the microphones built into their products. The subject is dark, but the arrangement is jaunty, with a flavour of reggaeton or Latino pop. Elsewhere, on ‘Digital Trash’, Caroline’s subject is the “paper trail” we leave behind online, again accessible by unscrupulous data harvesters.
It’s a diverse record. ‘Continuous Interfold’ is a brooding piece of ambient electronics, while ‘Buoyancy’ is a disarming collision of bittersweet electropop melody and throbbing, club-ready beats and bass. ‘Metatron’ extolls the virtues of various shapes over writhing neon synth sequences, and there’s an ingenious Vince Clarke remix of ‘Before’, whose powerful synths are evident all over the track.
But perhaps the record’s most important moment is ‘Another Solar System’: over ticking sequences and optimistic blips, Caroline sings of the possibilities of moving worlds to escape a crumbling earth, how they might contain the right elements to host life. But listen closer, and it’s revealed to be a fruitless exercise, and that we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
It’s this juxtaposition of unorthodox lyrics and masterful pop arrangement that makes Reed & Caroline such an engaging act. On ‘Hello Science’, they’ve perfected a dark and delicious combination.