Album Review: In Praise Of Shadows // Puma Blue

Jacob Allen, or as he’s more commonly known, Puma Blue, didn’t invent the amalgamation of lo-fi production and jazz guitar which personifies his new release: In Praise Of Shadows. But you will struggle to find another debut album which is quite as refined and deeply personal. In Praise Of Shadows is a searing example of the creative expression that can come from locking yourself in your bedroom with the right apparatus.

The 25-year-old, who splits his time between London and Atlanta, has come a long way since his first release, the EP Swum Baby that was released in 2017. In said project, with numbers like ‘Soft Porn’ and ‘(She’s) Just A Phase’ (a personal favourite) he establishes the juxtaposition between the bleakness of his musical textures and the silkiness of his voice which has since defined his sound.

Where this record has risen above his previous releases is in the introspect that Allen exhibits with the themes at the core of the record. To help understand what influenced these themes, we must be aware of the inspiration for the album’s title. In Praise Of Shadows is not just Puma Blue’s new project, but also an essay by Japanese author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki; Tanizaki highlights the cultural contrast in the attitude towards darkness between Western and Asian society. The West values the light and views it as a source of clarity and success, while Asian art and literature has traditionally celebrated the beauty of darkness and shadow. 

Allen pays tribute to this in his new release: “The title of this album comes from the stunning book by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, from which the themes sat in my heart ‘till I came to the understanding that this Album was about finding the light in the dark.”

Given the year we’ve all just suffered through, the poignancy of this message rings as true as it ever will. But for Puma Blue it takes on a more literal meaning, as the artist has been upfront about his long-term struggles with insomnia. In Praise Of Shadows isn’t trying to be either an antidote or a diversion for the restless, instead it just offers an illustration of one man’s experience.

The paradox between light and dark presents itself as a motif constantly throughout the record’s 51-minute duration, fighting its way through headphones with an impressive musical and lyrical delicacy. The initial lyrics “Oh, does it get better? / ‘Cause nothing feels right / Oh, I know we are separate / But I saw you in the sweetest light” comes from the album’s opener ‘Sweet Dreams’. These lyrics sit on the backbone of a melancholic keyboard loop which is reminiscent of something from the Kid A/Amnesiac era of Radiohead.

Elsewhere, one of the project’s singles ‘Velvet Leaves’ shows Allen’s range, with a seemingly formulaic song that swiftly turns to chaos, ending with a cacophony of instrumentation to create a dream-like atmosphere. The album does not shy away from its musical inspirations: ‘Is It Because’ adds a hip-hop drum beat to Puma Blue’s cosy guitar tone, while the latter half of ‘Bath House’ lets a jazz-inspired saxophone solo transport the listener into a woozy comatose state.

The record’s two strongest tracks come after one another. The interlude ‘Olive/Letter to ATL’, which fluctuates between being comforting and unsettling, introduces ‘Oil Slick’. This track acts as a pace-changer, the powerful bassline and jazz-style drums gives a tempo boost and provides a vastly different but equally successful backdrop to Allen’s smooth vocals. In its latter stages the song builds up to a jazzy crescendo, which at track 8 of 14 feels like the climax of the entire record.

This is followed up by the heart-breaking ‘Silk Print’, where Allen lets his sensitive vocals take centre stage in a way the album teases up to this point, to desperately emotive effect.

The biggest feather in In Praise Of Shadows bow is Allen’s ability to toe the line between finding internal and external inspiration for his music. He has cherry-picked influence from countless genres, and even pinched the title of his favourite book. His skill lies however, in synthesising these inspirations with the most intimate facets of his internal state. Only then, can he create something so special.

Puma Blue may have found peace in darkness. But in In Praise Of Shadows he has created something destined to be a source of light.

Words by Ewan Williamson

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