Alex The Astronaut – ‘How To Grow A Sunflower Underwater’ review: an introspective triumph

Alexandra Lynn’s sophomore album has her hardest-hitting lyrics and boldest musical excursions yet

Is this growing up?

On the opening track of ‘How To Grow A Sunflower Underwater’, Alexandra Lynn asks this with a palpable restlessness. The Sydney native has never shied away from change or risk-taking, but hell hath no anxiety like impending adulthood. Like everyone is when they stare down their late 20s, Lynn is scared, uncertain for what the future holds and aching over her past.

Her second album as Alex The Astronaut lays bare the full gamut of those emotions and the tumultuous situations that forced her to confront them over the past two years. But amid this stark examination of Lynn’s internal calamity, there’s a sense of reckoning and catharsis that makes ‘Sunflower’ feel triumphant.

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As noted in NME’s five-star review of Lynn’s full-length debut, 2020’s ‘The Theory Of Absolutely Nothing’, poignancy has always been one of her strongest artistic strengths. On that album, she explored themes like domestic violence (‘I Like To Dance’) and unwanted pregnancy (‘Lost’) with conviction. There are similarly heavy topics addressed here: ‘Sick’ chronicles Lynn’s struggle with a loved one succumbing to a terminal illness, while ‘South London’ paints a conflicted picture of nostalgia as a wistful reminiscence of her youth mutates into a rumination on trauma.

An early highlight on the album, both for its soul-baring poetry and musical profundity, is ‘Haunted’. It’s carried by a pattering snare drum and a smoky Nashville twang, Lynn’s vocal melody riding their peaks and valleys. Her voice strained, she emphatically conveys her pain when she sings: “I’m sure I’m haunted / I’ve tried breathing and chamomile teas / But the bad times keep coming on down / They keep knocking me ’round.

These darker songs are balanced out with bursts of effervescent indie-pop. ‘Octopus’ shines with prickly Casio beats and lovably campy sound effects, while Lynn explores the minutiae of an autism diagnosis with equal measures of buoyancy and wisdom. ‘Northern Lights’, a song celebrating therapy, bounds along with snappy drum machines, Christmassy tambourines and icy grand piano chords. This is also one of the handful of songs where Lynn embraces the influence of her favourites Gang Of Youths, nodding to ‘What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out?’ (from 2017’s ‘Go Father In Lightness’) with its horn-filled crescendo.

Further nods can be heard on ‘Growing Up’, with its slow burn from twee folk ballad into theatrical anthem, and in the way ‘Airport’ weaves honeyed indie-rock guitars with ethereal strings. This song also hints at the atmospheric breadth of Phoebe Bridgers, and even sees Lynn name-drop her in the confession that she once hit skip on one of Bridgers’ songs “’cause I was jealous I didn’t make it”.

Elsewhere on ‘Sunflower’, Lynn’s acoustic fretting channels the dusty fingerpicking style of Bob Dylan, and because she co-produced the record with three members of Ball Park Music, it’s no surprise that their pseudo-jazzy fuzz-pop fingerprints are felt on ‘Haunted’ and ‘Octopus’. But while Lynn happily wears her influences on her sleeve, ‘Sunflower’ never borders on derivative. She’s spent five years carving out her own sound, and here, the cues she takes from her idols only act to give it additional texture.

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Ending the album on the highest of high notes is ‘Haircut’, a cinematic ode to self-love. It feels like a hard-earned arrival to the destination Lynn set her sights on nine tracks prior, as she sings about “feel[ing] like who I am supposed to” after lopping off her locks. There’s some lingering anxiety: “I’m better but I don’t always feel safe / I’m trying really hard to be brave,” she concedes in a later passage, but victoriously quashes her fears by declaring she’ll “stand up, look around and smile like I know how to take it”. After all, she notes in that same verse, she’s “a sandcastle I’m building bit by bit”.

With this, Lynn answers her own existential question quite clearly: this is indeed growing up. But she’ll also be the first to admit that she’s far from figured out all the complexities of adulthood, so there’s no definite resolution to the story she endeavours to tell on ‘Sunflower’ – and nor should there be. The album charts two whirlwind years of Lynn’s growth as both an artist and a person, and if there’s one thing it makes clear, it’s that she’s determined to never stop growing.

Details

  • Release date: July 22
  • Record label: Warner Music Australia
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