Montaigne – ‘Making It!’ review: a vaudevillian performer dives into the digital void

For their delightfully abrasive third album, the Sydney stalwart trades theatrics for brain-melting hyperpop

Theatricality has always shone at the core of Montaigne’s artistry. The 2014 EP ‘Life Of Montaigne’ already demonstrated the Sydney artist’s affection for showy bursts of key- and string-laced grandeur, over which their vocals would bound from operatic harmonies to sharp quips steeped in melodrama.

Two years later they broke through with ‘Glorious Heights’, Jess Cerro’s first album under the Montaigne moniker. Between the melodic vocal chops on ‘In The Dark’ and neon buzz of ‘Come Back To Me’, that 2016 record offered just a glimpse of the quirkiness they had tucked up their sleeve. On 2019’s ‘Complex’, they further enriched their lavish tonal palette with an equal balance of orchestral pomp and digital tang. But if that was Cerro wading into their pool of weirdness, ‘Making It!’ is a triple backflip in from the highest platform.

Cerro cites Studio Ghibli and Charli XCX as two of LP3’s influences, and both feel apt: the spark of the former peers through in Cerro’s storytelling, where they take seemingly mundane topics (on David Byrne collab ‘Gravity’, the pair muse wistfully on the prospect of becoming homeowners) and mines from them a kind of psychedelic beauty. It’s coloured in by the album’s hyperpop instrumentals, nodding to the aggressive, glitched-out production on Charli’s 2020 album ‘How I’m Feeling Now’.

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Montaigne
Credit: Jacinthe Lau

Where on Cerro’s previous records, the music would serve to uplift their vaudevillian prose, here it’s just as crucial. The bitcrushed percussion and wonky keys on ‘SickCryDie’ let the listener feel the pangs of anxiety Cerro depicts in their lyrics, reckoning with the impact trauma has on a blossoming relationship. And without its angular collision of wonky tropical house beats and garish brightness, ‘JC Ultra’ – a biting critique of major label ethics in the form of an instructional guide on becoming a “vessel for the pro-alien agenda” – would just feel cheesy.

On ‘Make Me Feel So…’, redlined Auto-Tune elevates Cerro’s (and fellow Eurovision 2021 alumnus Daði Freyr’s) harmonic vocal runs, giving the chorus a trippy, prismatic effect when heard through headphones. Earlier in the journey, ‘Embodi3d’ starts out as a honey-sweet ballad, but slowly grows distressed before erupting into a flurry of mechanical stabs and distorted harmonies. It’s this technicolour futurism that leaves ‘Making It!’ feeling less theatrical than Cerro’s earlier work, but much more cinematic: if ‘Glorious Heights’ and ‘Complex’ are three-act Broadway epics, ‘Making It!’ is a billion-dollar blockbuster best viewed in IMAX 3D.

Cerro has gone on record to say they don’t view ‘Making It!’ as a hyperpop album. Although genre labels are important to help listeners find music that best suits their tastes, knowing Cerro didn’t make this record with “hyperpop” in mind helps in understanding it. Because while it leans heavily on sounds that define the genre, ‘Making It!’ doesn’t sound nearly as much like Charli XCX, 100 Gecs or any PC Music artist (or even local contemporaries like Banoffee and Ninajirachi) as it does like Montaigne.

Announcing the album, Cerro said they aimed to make “a computer record” that still felt “warm in places” and “innately human”. Not only have they pulled that off without a hitch, in a paradoxical way, ‘Making It!’ is actually Montaigne’s most human record yet.

Details

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  • Release date: September 2
  • Record label: Wonderlick / Sony Music Australia
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