“Pills and Good Advice” begins like a folk song. A plucked acoustic guitar. The vocals a gliding falsetto. The lyrics trace the narrator's relief after leaving a mental hospital and her continued struggles: “On my first day out / my familiar town / felt the same as in my dreams... But I don’t know my name at all / but what else is new.” After a minute, the song swerves to glowing bass and synths and skittering drums.
This is the first track on t.i.a.p.f.y.h., the new album from Seattle’s Left at London, and over 10 minutes and 13 seconds, she keeps the song morphing. Pitch-shifted vocals here, spare soundscapes there. It sets up the energies and themes of the album that follows—a piece of music animated by frictions and leaps, between dour folk and shiny indie pop, between mental illness and healing. Here, the move from one to the next is not a direct line from pain to relief. The song might reach a place of mediated acceptance and beauty, a shimmering refrain of “don’t cry for me / for I’ve found peace in the madness." Then Left at London will subvert it with “again” or “for now.”
Originally, she planned to release the song as a single. Then she used it to audition for the City of Shoreline’s artist residency program. She’d already been working on a debut album called You Are Not Alone Enough, a follow-up to her EPs, the two volumes of “Transgender Street Legend.” But “when I got the residency, I had to conceptualize an album on the spot.”
She’d had another record planned, “a Sufjan Stevens–type project, a concept album about Seattle and King County and Washington state.” One of its songs, called “The Ballad of Marion Zioncheck,” is about the local 1930s congressman who fought for the New Deal, spent time in sanitariums, and died by suicide. That was track two, which she recorded as a piano ballad. The rest of the album—which expands on themes of “mental illness and recovery and how nonlinear it is”—spilled out over a month and a half in a cottage in Richmond Beach.
The sonic range persists, too. At first, “It Could Be Better” sounds like late 1990s pop collided with a hip-hop beat. Then it shifts into a sort of disco refrain of “Don’t stop now / carry on / heaven is a place we don’t belong.” Then it diffuses into a syncopated soundscape, with a distorted synth and a sample from the movie Reefer Madness. “I love albums that have completely different sounds for each track,” she says.
Perhaps because Left at London first got big attention for her meticulous imitations and breakdowns of other artists' work (Tyler the Creator, Mitski), I came to the album seeking cognates, influences. The first time I listened to t.i.a.p.f.y.h., I wrote down a ranging list: Car Seat Headrest, Neutral Milk Hotel, Frank Ocean, Perfume Genius, Mitski, Kanye West.
I asked Left at London about her influences on this album. She said a year or two ago she might have just tossed out an answer. “I would be like, I don’t know, Kanye, Frank Ocean. And yeah, those are two huge influences of mine.” But lately she’s been thinking about how everything she’s heard—for better or worse—is a sort of influence. She’s started focusing on “honestly, my friends, like being able to be in a friend group that’s so musically inclined.” She rattles off names, many of whom contributed to or were sampled on the album: Floral Tattoo, William Crooks, Vera Much, Chuck Sutton.
But she is also now paying increasing attention to what she as an artist sounds like. “When I make an album, or make a project in general, I am listening to my own music probably the most. And there’s part of me that wonders, like, is this narcissistic or something like that? But in reality, I’m trying to be inspired by myself.”