ROSTAM

★★★★☆

The sound of “Half-Light” is best described by its cover. The colors are bright and warm, evoking sensitivity and emotion, while the image itself is pixelated, belying a digital, distorted element. The Persian characters suggest foreign musical influences. Yet, each part comes together around the friendly figure in the center: Rostam.  

“Half-Light” is the debut solo album of musician Rostam Batmanglij, best-known for his role in the indie pop band Vampire Weekend. Batmanglij, better known by his first name and stage name Rostam, was a central part of the group, as he sang, co-wrote, produced and played instruments on each album.

Since his departure from Vampire Weekend in 2016, Rostam has flitted from one project to another. He released a collaborative album with fellow indie rocker Hamilton Leithauser in 2016, as well as producing critically acclaimed alternative R&B tracks “F.U.B.U.” for Solange Knowles and “Ivy” for Frank Ocean. This track record shows Rostam to be a prodigious talent, yet a solo album presents new opportunities for personal reflection. It is only fitting that the spotlight is now directly on him.

The album’s lyrics are ambiguous enough to be universal, but with context, they hint at significance to Rostam’s life. The son of Iranian immigrants to the United States, Rostam grew up in Washington, D.C., immersed in both contemporary American culture and Persian traditions from his parents. This picture was further complicated when he came out as gay in 2010.

His struggles with identity are woven throughout the album’s lyrics, most strikingly on “Rudy”: “Please just once look at it / From the ground up / It’s not what you thought / And it’s awfully f—–d up.” Rostam seems to be calling for acceptance — for family or divinity to understand his angle instead of judging him from on high.

On other songs like “When,” the lyrics are less direct: “When you know something / How do you know that you know it?” could be a reference to sexual self-discovery, or it could be interpreted as political given the song’s spoken word snippets like “We just wanna change the distribution of wealth.” It is Rostam’s slippery lyrical style that makes “Half-Life” at once relatable and intimate; he avoids over explaining, leaving the exact narrative to the imagination.

These musings are enriched by the diverse array of instrumentation on “Half-Light,” the core of which consists of keyboard, drums and electric guitar. Rostam layers live recordings with samples, synthesizers and reverb to produce shimmering melodies and warm nostalgia. The buzzing guitar of “Bike Dream” evokes flipping through the pages of an old yearbook, while “I Will See You Again” takes a softer approach, relying on the piano, acoustic guitar and vocal reverb for its wistful goodbye.

However, the true focal point of each song is Rostam’s delicate vocals, performed as if with a slight, permanent smile. “Never Going to Catch Me” features the singer playfully chanting “Still not quite what you wanted so you / Have to start again” over a cheerful, quirky saxophone backing, granting a humorous tone to a song about setbacks. His likable persona is a major part of what makes “Half-Light” so listenable. Rather than a dramatic, tortured soul, Rostam is just a normal guy searching for meaning.

Despite his charisma, Rostam’s presence becomes slightly fatiguing on the tail end of the album. His voice, though expressive, tends to stick to the same tone throughout the album and is less enchanting after the 12th track. Although it has an attractive choral section, “EOS” is mostly bland instrumental space without a unique melody or new idea and could have easily been cut. Similarly, “Thatch Snow” lacks an intriguing hook and ends just as it begins to pick up momentum, resembling more an interlude than a song.

These moments are major exceptions to the clever experimentation abundant on “Half-Light.” Trying to pin the album to a single style would be futile; not only do many tracks mix organic instrumentation with synthesizers and digital manipulation, the variety of instruments used is impressive on its own. The record begins on “Sumer,” with samples of a choir singing a hymn from 13th-century England.

The sound soon shifts halfway around the world on “Wood,” where Rostam plays Indian tabla drums and a Persian melody on a 12-stringed guitar. Rough synthesizers and a mechanical beat on “Warning Intruders” create a modern, digital sound, even more pronounced when Rostam heavily manipulates his voice in the style of Bon Iver or Kanye West, such as on “When” or “Hold You.” On the latter, Rostam’s intensely modulated vocals quickly fluctuate pitch, intermingling with the smooth, clear singing of guest Angel Deradoorian to create a multifaceted ballad reminiscent of Frank Ocean’s album “Blonde.”

Given the wide range of influences that find their way onto “Half-Light,” their successful integration is remarkable; rarely does a new sound seem misplaced or shoehorned in.

The one exception is the garbled vocal samples on “When.” Although interesting in concept, in practice the samples are noisy and gratuitously long, disrupting the flow of the album.

On the rest of the project, an airy, dreamlike atmosphere provides a common thread, along with the consistent presence of Rostam’s voice. His soft and tremulous delivery gives “Half-Light” its characteristic feeling of a summer morning, most clearly articulated on the title track. There, the singer fills the sparse piano backing with breathy and reverbrating vocal melodies, before a soulful electric guitar solo brings the album to a peak of emotional resonance.

“Half-Light” shines from the start, although this brilliance fades somewhat as the album concludes. Rostam’s innocent charm is the soul of the album, well-balanced by compositional and emotional maturity. The diverse instrumentation is confidently arranged in an engaging tapestry of sounds, held together by the singer’s touching vocal performances and a dreamlike yet familiar atmosphere. If this is a step from the darkness into the “Half-Light,” listeners should eagerly await Rostam’s entry into the full light.

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