A quote often attributed to director Howard Hawks is, “A good movie has three good scenes and no bad scenes.” Is the same true for a good album? Vagabon’s Sorry I Haven’t Called, released Sept. 15, is a breezy pop project that tests this theory.
Let’s start with the good, beginning with the excellent opener “Can I Talk My Shit?” Though the title suggests something akin to a diss track, Vagabon, the onstage moniker of Laetitia Tamko, sings it as a meek question: “Can I talk my shit?”
The track is rendered in potently delicate tones, verses constructed via layers of subtle instrumentation and a shy 808 kick. While the song’s chorus isn’t intense, it hits like a sledgehammer compared to the brittle sections before it. The contrast makes Tamko’s mellow voice seem capable of rousing stadiums.
Next on the album’s hall of fame is “Lexicon,” Sorry’s most naturalistic track. Featuring a lively drum kit and delicious guitar licks, “Lexicon” is a perfect soundtrack to the kind of friendly garden kickback where red solo cups are filled with champagne. The airy song is certainly comparable to “Can I Talk My Shit?”, but Tamko finds enough to differentiate her tracks so that the record feels like a full range of soft moods instead of a repetition of a singular soft tone.
“Do Your Worst” is the closest Tamko gets to a full-on offensive front. “Every time we talk, there’s something missing,” she sings on the track’s chorus, “How the fuck did we ever get by?” Elegant as always, Tamko delivers a send-off over thick breakbeats: “Do your worst ’cause who cares?”
In line with the Howard Hawks quote, the rest of the album falls squarely under the “not bad” category — not terrible, or mediocre, just plain “okay.” Truthfully, there’s nothing wrong with a song that’s nice, but not gripping. Our nation’s Old Navies, Barnes and Nobles and Cheesecake Factories need their soundtracks.
As sarcastic as that may sound, inoffensive music brightens up a space, sort of like a rug or potted plant. “You Know How” is one such fixture, a house track on an edible, featuring synths that waft through the song like a gentle breeze. It’s simple and pretty enough, but it’s hard to pin any more adjectives to it because it flows by without leaving much of an impression, a perfectly balanced pH 7.
“Nothing To Lose,” with instrumentation reminiscent of Wii Menu music, fulfills the same purpose. You may not be dying for the song to continue, but you’re also not eager for it to end. Listening to these tracks is like occupying a liminal space. Maybe you were folding laundry before, and later you’ll do your homework, but right now this music is just enough to keep your attention held and your body relaxed.
Most songs on Sorry fit these descriptions. Listening to the album becomes a meditative experience, sort of like sleeping in on a weekend morning. Accordingly, the surprise brassy solo on “It’s a Crisis” is jarring rather than a welcome reprieve, breaking the formula the album has set so far — so now you decide to be interesting? However, none of these songs ever dip into downright “bad” territory. The closest they get to even “mediocre” is “Passing Me By,” which is best summarized by comparing it to a deep cut off Taylor Swift’s Midnights.
Softness and inoffensiveness do not have to be ugly words. Corporate music is the sound we’ve grown accustomed to in our public spaces, the sound “serious appreciators of music” learn to hate. But mass appeal does not have to be dirty or disingenuous. Mass appeal can facilitate moments of calm and connection, especially when it’s done as genuinely as on Sorry I Haven’t Called.
On TikTok, Tamko posted a video of her performing her song “Autobahn” with the caption “i had to turn away from the audience at my show because i was close to crying.” The song builds, but just barely, slipping in and out without bombast. Although you may forget its particulars, it, and the album it rests on, is a stylish beauty for the time that it plays. Give it a try.