Album Review: Diagrams – Chromatics

By on Tuesday, 20th January 2015 at 1:00 pm

It gets personal on ‘Chromatics’, Sam Genders’ second collection of poppy psych-folk. Genders’ back-story merits a quick recap: as a founder member of seminal folktronica act Tunng, Genders helped define the sound of a genre in the mid-to-late Noughties. After parting ways with Tunng and dabbling with teaching, Genders released 2012’s ‘Black Light’ under the Diagrams alias. Where that album discussed life from a distant, abstracted viewpoint (cf. the refrain of ‘Tall Buildings’: “hexagon, pentagon, triangle, square”), ‘Chromatics’ is a far more personal body of work, no doubt influenced by Genders’ recent move from London to the relatively more intimate setting of Sheffield.

The scene of intellectual pop is set by opener ‘Phantom Power’, an upbeat first-person confessional with a hooky topline and abstract lyrical musings such as “I’m just a primate”. ‘Gentle Morning Sun’ is that rare thing: a pop song written by and for thirtysomethings, documenting the tenuous acceptance of growing older, becoming a responsible adult and what it means for one’s relationships with others. And perhaps one’s sanity itself. “The world isn’t waiting for us anymore / not like when we were young” speaks of the emptiness of unfulfilled dreams, despite the presence of a loving wife and kids; the narrator’s troubled half-waking state comes to a cacophonous climax of church organ, digital synth noise and squalling guitar feedback. A brilliant treatment of a subject close to millions of people’s hearts, yet rarely dealt with in pop music.


The title track concludes the first movement with a delicate down-tempo combination of acoustic guitar arpeggios and synth bass reminiscent of Genders’ previous band. Because the song itself is so gentle, the cleverness of the production is more apparent. Every song is enhanced by subtle electronic motifs: squelchy square-wave synths, sampled found noises, moulded by oscillators and filters. Producer Leo Abrahams has a long and distinguished list of collaborators behind him (Wild Beasts, Jon Hopkins, Brett Anderson), and this is another classy piece of production.

‘You Can Talk to Me’ is as personal as songwriting gets. Its premise is simple – the musical equivalent of an arm around the shoulders – but the way Genders has with a simple, almost childlike, vocal delivery, gives it almost unlimited restorative power. For anyone adrift on a sea of melancholy, put this on. It’ll help. If you’re already feeling ok, you might even be moved to tears by this unparalleled display of the best of human nature. The world needs some of that right now.

And then, buried in the album at track seven, comes the record’s pièce de resistance. Combining the jumpy electro beats and strummed acoustic guitar of The Flaming Lips’ ‘Yoshimi’ (the crowd shouts of “Let’s go!” sound rather familiar too) with Pet Shop Boys’ towering synths, ‘Dirty Broken Bliss’ is a potentially chart-bothering electro-pop paean with an enormous chorus. Genders, however, can’t resist a touch of surreality in the lyrics – “suck my skull”, indeed.

‘Chromatics’ is a triumph. It showcases one man’s personal songwriting vision, exploring topics of love and pain through a prism of an abstracted folk sensibility. Abrahams’ producing is both groundbreaking and respectful of the material, moulding and filling out the bare pieces into mature arrangements. There are no gimmicks here, just thoughtful music for adults. A great release to kick off 2015.


Diagrams‘ new album ‘Chromatics’ is out this week on Full Time Hobby. Genders plays live tomorrow night at the Lexington in north London.

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