“Gotta Get Smart” might be the slowest, saddest song on an album full of tearjerkers, and as such it’s an apt opener for El Perro del Mar’s Love Is Not Pop. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Assbring shows off her compositional prowess, putting gently strummed acoustics, reverb-laden synths, and the lightest spike of dissonant guitar noise into service of her atmospheric pop. But, as on so many of the album’s tracks, the secret to the song’s gentle sublimity is Assbring’s vocals. When all of the instruments drop out and she pleads with the listener to “go on, go on, go on, go on,” she sounds shakily resolved, but once the band drops in and the verses start up again, she’s all kinds of conflicted: She’s convincing you to leave her, and she’s convincing herself that it’s the right thing to do.
Things perk up a little when “Change of Heart” rolls in on muted horns and an easy bassline; there’s even a nice guitar backdrop that’s heavy on the flanger. It’s like Assbring was flirting with the idea of writing something funky but just couldn’t muster up that kind of celebratory verve. And why should she? She’s reminiscing on hours of sweet talk, she knows “this could never work out,” but she’s wishing you’d take her back anyhow. Yes, you: Assbring typically registers her pleas in the second person, a technique that is often disconcerting and occasionally heartbreaking. Over the course of the record she’ll accuse you, cry over you, and confide in you, so that whatever distancing effect her chilly musical arrangements have is bridged by the intimacy of her words. On tracks like “L Is for Love” and “A Better Love,” the combination of sparse pop melodies and direct, poignant lyrics allows Assbring to sound at once like she’s whispering in your ear and like she’s drifting away. Uniting those emotional registers (the intimate and the alienated) is an underlying vulnerability.
Love Is Not Pop is instrumentally minimal, often leaving Assbring and her trembling voice to fend against a whole lot of negative space. But that’s not to say we get 30 minutes of lilting and sighing, or that Assbring never dips into fuller arrangements. One especially lovely late-album standout, “It Is Something (To Have Wept),” builds itself up over the course of five minutes, culminating in a haze of layered vocals, synths that sound like strings, synths that sound like synths, bells, and guitar, all of them chiming as Assbring’s vocals fade out into the ether. Affecting as that is, the song also represents something of a missed opportunity: It demonstrates that Assbring can more than hold her own against a denser sonic backdrop, prompting one to wonder why she didn’t venture a few more assertive cuts to balance out her straightforwardly minimalist aesthetic.
That’s a minor complaint, though, since there are more than enough gorgeous melodies in play here to fill out the record’s half-hour runtime. And it’s never boring: Some might describe El Perro’s sound as loungy, even dull, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is pop with a light touch and a tremendously heavy heart; it only qualifies as easy listening if you can distance yourself from Assbring’s expressive singing, if that aching voice breaking over those austere arrangements exerts no pull on your heartstrings. And if that’s the case, you may be too cold-hearted to be listening to pop music in the first place.