Small Black has persistently rejected being branded as a chillwave act, but their follow-up to 2010’s New Chain proves once again that the native Brooklynites are definitely on the high end of that much-maligned subgenre’s spectrum. Limits of Desire expands the density of the band’s sound substantially, transitioning from the lushly downtempo bedroom beats of their debut to a heavier, more expansive aesthetic that’s indicative of their maturation. There’s a flurry of stylistic influences, both antiquated and modern, from New Order and the Cure to Phoenix and M83, yet Small Black retains an approach to manufacturing synthy grooves that’s all their own. The album’s showy cover art, consisting of a naked couple embracing atop a stepladder above a stream with a crocodile moseying about, screams, “Hey, look at me!,” but the striking image sums up Limits of Desire quite well: an equal balance of style and substance, with a deeper meaning hidden beneath its flashy flights of fancy.
Voluptuous opener “Free at Dawn” can best be described as arena-worthy glo-fi, with a polished vocal performance from lead singer Josh Kolenick, whose velvety lyrical delivery expands on the rhythmic exploits of last year’s hip-hop-infused Moon Killer mixtape. “Canoe,” another early highlight, follows suit, emboldening the album’s central theme of confused closeness. Kolenick sings about being “stuck between two shores,” and on “No Stranger” asks someone, ostensibly a sought-after lover, to “take me through your barricades, push me through your city walls.” The key word in the album’s title is, indeed, “limits,” as each track speaks of an appetite for passion that’s never fully satiated.
That hunger is echoed by some of Limits of Desire’s less focused arrangements: The excessively poppy “Sophie,” the sleepy title track, and the overlong closer “Outskirts,” which sounds like an outtake from New Chain, leave the listener craving more of a tangible connection to the material. But Limits of Desire soars when it grabs hold of a very specific kind of flirtatiousness, from the hushed affections of “Proper Spirit” and “Only a Shadow” to the creeping, luxuriant pulsation of “Shook Loves.” Small Black successfully avoids a sophomore slump by harnessing their various sonic inclinations.