Nick Diamonds (a.k.a. Nicholas Thorburn) has been flirting with synth-pop for as long as he has been releasing music. Amidst an ever-changing mosaic of projects — lo-fi sensations the Unicorns, evolving songwriting vehicle Islands, folk rock one-off Human Highway, “doom wop” side-project Mister Heavenly, Hawaiian-inspired Reefer — catchy melodies and goofy keyboards have been a near-constant aspect of his music.
This means that, although the solo effort City of Quartz doesn’t sound quite like anything he’s done before, the synth-pop foray doesn’t come as a jarring departure. The instrumentation here is almost entirely electronic (aside from a few guitars) and, not unlike the Unicorns all those years ago, it favours trebly quirks over lush textures.
These songs abound with sonic quirks: opener “City of Quartz” begins the album with blippy chiptune, standout pop cuts “Witch Window” and “Bohemian Groove” both employ what sound like vocal patches from a cheap keyboard, and “I’m Nobody” uses spoken samples to punctuate its danceable throb. The hair-raising staccato keyboard stabs of “The Mind Reels” and “What Can the Sun” will remind listeners that Thorburn scored the hit podcast Serial last year, and the synthetic swirls of dramatic closer “God Internet” exude Blade Runner-esque retro-futurism.
And yet, for all of City of Quartz’s sonic treats — not to mention Thorburn’s wonderful-as-always childlike croon — most of the songs lack the anything-goes unpredictably and cheeky morbidity of Thorburn’s best work.
There’s one exception: “Bohemian Groove” sports easygoing acoustic strums and beach-ready tropical plinks, sounding like a synth-draped spin on the calypso leanings of Islands’ 2006 winner Return to the Sea. With its charmingly cutesy innocence, this is one of Thorburn’s best-ever songs, but it unfortunately highlights the forgettability of the rest of the album.
It’s not that City of Quartz is bad, but after the tantalizing glimpse of greatness on “Bohemian Groove,” it’s hard not to wish for more.