On her debut album, Skinned, ML Buch framed wry observations about modern life in futuristic, subtly off-kilter electronic pop. She was touching screens, mulling over online obsessions, contemplating the nexus of technology and desire. Her new album, Suntub, focuses on more abstract and corporeal themes—onomatopoeic words, “strange curves,” elemental forms like sun and sea and wind—teeming with the nitid detail of a Gregory Crewdson tableau. More than anything, Buch seems consumed with the mysteries of biology and the mazelike dimensions of human viscera. “Can I melt in algal bloom/Leak from bladder flower wombs,” she asks on “Solid,” stacking vocal harmonies over neo-grunge guitar. Across three different songs, she sings, respectively, of “flesh on air,” a “fleshless hand,” and a “flesh rag” in a “flesh bag.”
Accompanying this shift from URL to IRL, Skinned’s overtly electronic elements—vaporwave synths, atmospheric sound design, Auto-Tuned choruses—have largely disappeared, replaced by sparkling guitars, frictionless rock drumming, and vocal melodies rendered with airbrushed clarity. Buch leans further into emulating the “dad rock” of blockbuster acts like Dire Straits and the Police: Traces of Roxy Music’s DNA are evident in the chromium glow of her guitar tone, along with the fuzz of shoegaze and the crunch of ’90s indie. She even indulges in a little ersatz vinyl scratching. But more often than not, the reference points feel like a copy of a copy of a copy, emulated so many times that the original inspiration is impossible to identify, leaving only a vague feeling of deja vu.
To create her striking, ultra-vibrant sound—steeped in alt-rock naturalism yet wearing an uncanny sheen—Buch used a number of unusual techniques, including seven-stringed and fretless guitars. She apparently recorded her vocals inside her car, and reamped her instruments through spaces like a swimming pool and a wood-paneled sauna, but her production doesn’t offer a tangible sense of physical space: In an odd twist, it offers the suggestion of a virtual world, something conjured up entirely within the confines of her computer. There’s not a hair out of place in these immaculately polished assemblages. They’re almost too flawless—the lines unnaturally sharp, the colors unnaturally vivid, the rhythms as steady as HDTV with motion smoothing turned on. Yet that hyperreal gleam is also what gives them their magnetism.
Nowhere is the album’s curious airlessness more palpable than in Buch’s vocals. They sound weirdly placeless, perhaps even sourceless—smooth, free of vibrato, soft yet not quite breathy. But where such tactics might have been used to create a distancing effect, Buch’s unblemished tone and intuitive melodic turns never sound arch, affected, or ironic. Her tone may be cool, but her music is bathed in a warm, radiant glow. A similar paradox characterizes the album itself, which swaps the artificial veneer of Skinned for a deeper and more mysterious form of artifice. Outwardly, Suntub is so glossy that it suggests a kind of normcore, a pastiche of gentle alt-rock. Below the surface, however, Buch’s strange curves and fleshless hands point in a far more cryptic direction.