Written in the wake of a divorce and while working toward a PhD in musicology, the Los Angeles musician’s first album in four years is a breakup record stripped to its most elemental parts.
In ancient Greece, mourners performed ritual laments at funerals as a way of grappling with the turbulent emotions that accompany grieving. A chorus of women would overwhelm mourners with collective vocalizing, channeling their fear of the unknown and allowing for a cathartic purging of emotion. No Sun, the latest album from Nite Jewel, aka Los Angeles singer-songwriter and producer Ramona Gonzalez, seeks to replicate the formidable vulnerability of those ritual laments by way of expressive, low-lit electronic pop centered on her own heartache. Written in the wake of the dissolution of her 12-year marriage and while working toward a PhD in musicology, No Sun is a breakup record stripped to its most elemental parts. Lonely synth lines that beep like EKG machines and stretches of silence guide Gonzalez’s sleek blend of electronic, pop, and jazz music. The album is her most accomplished, arresting work yet.
Gonzalez’s music transports you to a dreamy otherworld, with scuffed backdrops and oblique, guarded lyrics. On earlier Nite Jewel albums, her airy voice was a swooning medium for nostalgic electro-pop filtered through funk and R&B. Her voice was often more a texture than a focal point, which some critics have been quick to charge as a weakness, but on No Sun she changes strategies. Gonzalez’s vocals are front and center, to emphasize the grief in her lyrics, especially on the standout, seven-minute opener “Anymore.” An oscillating synth beats in the background as Gonzalez sings about losing her sense of self in the aftermath of her breakup. “I wonder if I took over your life/Because it seems you took over mine,” she sings plaintively, her voice growing more delicate as it arrives at a revelation: “It’s no use now to cry/You have yours and I have mine.”
Gonzalez returned to her own independent imprint, Gloriette, in 2016, following a spate of label troubles, and since then, her music as Nite Jewel has taken on more riveting forms, a shift that was clearest on 2017’s buoyant Real High. With rubbery basslines and melodies that recalled Janet Jackson at her most featherlight, Real High opened up a more lyrically straightforward side that No Sun continues. The ballads “Before I Go” and “This Time” present her pain in cut-and-dried terms. “I won’t talk about my feelings if you come around,” she sings in the former over a glimmering synth; “Mm, what’s it about?/You hesitate to touch the water but I’m swimming out.” She lets her words linger afterward, the silence around them like a vacuum.
Even at its most desolate, No Sun allows light through the cracks. “To Feel It” uses bright keys, jittery synths, and a staggered beat to zero in on how even the most monotonous tasks—getting out of bed in the morning, picking a pen for work—can be loaded with memories of a past life. “I can try and distract my thoughts by getting close to another,” Gonzalez sings in a hopscotching voice. “The thing is there’s nothing like the one who’s your lover.” The songs on No Sun are musically syncretic, joining together sparse, varied sounds with ease; in the album credits, brown paper bags and ceiling fans appear alongside drum machines and string arrangements. Even the instrumental “#14,” with long, ambient stretches of Rhodes, bass, and synths, feels in tune with the album’s inward, thoughtful intention.
“Thought I saw something, or was it a warning?” Gonzalez asks on the late-album highlight “No Escape.” It’s one of many songs on No Sun that lean into passages of silence, a shuffling, stop-and-start synth-pop song that takes its time and allows a way to grieve what’s lost while looking ahead. Cymbals clatter in the background as synths quake, just as Gonzalez comes to a breaking point. “I don’t know where to run,” she admits, “This one you can’t run from.” The song doesn’t find her totally at peace—“there’s no escape,” she reminds us—but in its murmuring melodies and sighing relief, it’s certainly close. (S)
01 – Anymore
02 – Before I Go
03 – Show Me What You’re Made Of
04 – To Feel It
05 – #14
06 – No Escape
07 – This Time
08 – When There Is No Sun
OVERALL RATING: 3½ stars