Douglas Martin taught Roland Barthes about la petite mort.
Every heartbreak is a tiny death. A little piece of you dies whenever you can feel that twinge of somebody’s presence when you’re no longer with them, whenever you’re convinced things will work out and they don’t. Of course, that’s a cliché, but mostly to people lucky enough to forget. It’s a death of enthusiasm. Every time you come back into that feeling of infatuation, you come back a little less strong, a little more weary that something will go awry.
There’s a feathery touch of heartache in the music of tiny deaths, but it’s mostly conveyed through the vocals. Claire de Lune’s singing suggests she’s experienced those aortic fissures — you hear it in the timbre of her voice. There is a long, rich history of singers who can inject melancholy and regret into even the most upbeat songs, but some do it so strikingly that it’s obvious.
Written and produced by Grant Cutler, the music of tiny deaths is equal parts Radiohead-esque ambient electronics (with more of a pop slant), radio-ready trap-pop, and your classic guitar-and-drum-machine indie, only with a lot more emotional heft. The difference between tiny deaths and most indie groups of their ilk is like the difference between Pellegrino and Sprite.
The duo’s self-titled 2014 EP was a stunning display of finding grace in heartsickness. Love was sung about in the past tense, a formerly tangible feeling replaced by shadows and cold, hard winter snow, which is more than likely a lot colder and harder in de Lune’s home base of Minneapolis.
“The Words” and “Let Me In” are culminating and even cathartic, but convey the empty hole of longing in the middle. The music of “January” feels like being out at sea and having the waves crashing around you, but ultimately is about that aforementioned snowbound feeling. “Quantum” is a glacial, celestial cleanse with the hopeful feeling that a wayward lover will find their way back to the pair of outstretched arms they left long ago.
“Ocean,” the EP’s opening salvo, contains 808s and a wobbly-but-bright synth line, with de Lune’s voice soaring through the open air, affecting and powerful but ghostly, a reverb-soaked voice from the past singing about being just out of reach of true love. Cutler’s production gives the song a boundless, dream-like feel, like walking around a city center with mountains in the distance after day drinking, comfortably woozy and warm, feeling like you have much more space than you actually have.
The vulnerability displayed on tiny deaths dissipates at least for one song on new EP night flowers. “The Gardener” is a dance-worthy cut—complete with handclaps!—sung from the perspective of the person opposite the one who commonly appears in their songs, the falsely repentant adulterer, bringing up common excuses (“I’m addicted and I know that”) and platitudes (“I will love you, and I mean it”), with a plea to reconcile couched in narcissism (“Let me know if you change your mind / Let me know if you lose your mind”).
“Backwards” settles in the territory of the broken-hearted, but is also redemptive in a way tiny deaths songs haven’t been thus far; there is a rueful feeling in the air, but de Lune makes it clear she has no intention of wallowing in the debris of a broken relationship.
Even more stripped-down than their self-titled EP, the musical direction of night flowers packs a forward-moving charge whether the lyrics convey the instigator or the spurned. The relationships documented in the lyrics are still in the past tense, but the grooves are all in the pocket, whether the vibe tailors new-wave to contemporary pop (opening track “Ever”) or cleverly hijacks Atlanta bounce (closing track “Backwards”).
Equally propulsive, free-floating, and sorrowful, night flowers has very focused musical direction and a lyrical perspective — it touches on much more than the contours of a hollowed-out heart. To be clear, tiny deaths have the depth as songwriters to have gone as far as they could in both the former and latter, but it speaks to their ability to create something like night flowers. As de Lune sings on the EP’s closing track, “I won’t go backwards.”