As a violinist, painter, founding DJ at Boiler Room, and former staffer at her label Stones Throw, Sofie Royer brings an inquisitive, curatorial touch to the music she now creates as a solo artist. Her debut, 2020's Cult Survivor, was an idiosyncratic, ambitious album that specialized in lush 1980s-style soft rock. On her second album, Harlequin, the Iranian-Austrian musician retains its dreamy sounds but turns toward high-concept cabaret pop with heightened self-assurance and grandiose instrumentation. The music exudes a cool melancholy that complements its textured production.
As a teen, Royer studied violin in Vienna and played at opera houses as a member of the youth orchestra Junge Deutsche Philharmonie-experiences that seem to have informed Harlequin. In visual material and performances around the album, she adopted theatrical costuming inspired by the 19th-century Italian pantomime character Pierrot, taking the desolate clown as a model for her first singing gigs. "When I did my first live concert, I dressed myself and my band as clowns," she said in a statement. "It felt like a protective armor from my regular self. I didn't feel as vulnerable onstage." The album uses theatrics to impart moments of heartache and despondency. Her vocals are honest and frank, with abstract production serving as an opulent backdrop.
Baroque overture "Schweden Espresso" embraces Royer's early training, while its opening lyrics-"I step in the room/You're not on the scene"-introduce the record's theatrical concept. Throughout the robust arrangement, strings interweave with Royer's rapturous, airy vocal timbre. On "Court Jester," she grapples with an existential crisis over a playful production, briefly singing in German. Through an ADHD-medicated haze on "Baker Miller Pink," her straight-to-the-point vocal technique makes a clunky line like "Not an original thought in that deliberately unbrushed head of hair" lie seamlessly across the song's new wave tapestry.
The narrative crests as Harlequin reaches its second act on "Klein-Marx," in which Royer envisions throwing herself from Vienna's Kleine Marxerbruecke bridge. The bluesy "Feeling Bad Forsyth Street" transports us to the Lower East Side, recalling fellow Stones Throw act Mild High Club-particularly their heady 2016 album Skiptracing. Subtle strings coat the folksy song as a spaced-out Royer offers another antidote: "I let the realm get all up in my head/I talk to my Xans before I go to bed." A wonky keyboard shapes "Ballad of Bobby Beausoleil," an ode for the Manson Family disciple that surveys his film roles alongside his 1969 murder of Gary Hinman: It plays like a requiem for stolen youth.
The conceits can verge on pretentious, as on the two-minute orchestral composition "Sick Boy," which name-drops Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe by her birth name, Norma Jean Baker. But behind the theatrical motifs and the shield of performance art, Royer has become a more expressive and distinctive vocalist after the deadpan approach on her debut. Harlequin ends with the piano-laced last call "Someone Is Smoking," where she sings in a breathy register as she reconciles with nihilism: "I have traveled for so long/Only to find I've not come very far/I was made to do nothing/And from that, nothing comes." At its heart Harlequin is an extravagant response to cynicism, as Royer immerses herself in an illustrious theater of the mind.