On her second solo record, Gabrielle Hearst relishes pushing her voice to its limit.
On her second album as GABI, Gabrielle Herbst strains to linger on notes at the very upper edge of her range. Her soprano frays when she pushes it to its limits, but rather than treat that visceral wavering as a symptom of failure, she relishes it. While the New York singer’s debut, 2015’s Sympathy, treated the voice as a single element in an electroacoustic toolkit, its follow-up, Empty Me, distinguishes Herbst’s vocals for their fragility. Herbst is a skilled composer with classical training who chooses not to write vocal melodies that would showcase her voice’s power. She’s not interested in making it bend to her will. Instead, she busies herself in the space where the voice falters, where it’s in danger of breaking. She can showcase more vulnerability there and Empty Me, a more intimate work than Sympathy, thrives where it’s vulnerable.
Sympathy felt like a mannered exercise in finding common ground between offbeat electronic and contemporary classical music. Empty Me swings more pop: Its songs are shorter and more devotional, less focused on broad compositional experiments and more intrigued by the pop song's ability to excavate the delicate machinations of human affection. Any track on Empty Me sounds like it might shatter at a moment’s notice, and that’s the point—so could love between two people.
Slow, gentle arrangements carry Herbst’s voice through the record. Acoustic instruments, like flutes played by Laura Cox and viola by Jacob Falby, blur together with Steve Hauschildt’s synthesized contributions. Often, Herbst’s vocals serve as their own accompaniment: On “Lets Not Exist,” she layers wordless, breathy syllables that work like woodwinds beneath the main vocal track. “Boom Boom Kiki,” the album’s most alert and playful track, lets a vocal loop act as percussion. These confident, functional uses of voice contrast with the voice Herbst uses to sing her lyrics, which often spins out of orbit. She loses breath control on the words “couldn’t breathe” during “Sleep,” as if she needed to prove her desperation in the moment. On “Until the End,” her voice spikes high on the words “love you,” then fades to a whisper for much of the remaining lyrics, as though their importance paled in comparison, as though they were already being forgotten.
Most pop songs are sung as if they were documents of a moment long past, memories reignited and embellished for an audience. On Empty Me, Herbst sings as though the moments she’s capturing were slipping through her fingers in the present, as if she had to snare them with her voice to prove they were ever real. She treats dreams of weddings in a field of sunflowers (“Wild Sunflowers”) with the same breathlessness as instant infatuation with an unfamiliar face (“Falling for a Stranger”). It can be hard to linger long inside these songs because they sound ephemeral by design. They take the form of pop songs, but abandon the style’s blunt wallop—they don’t mean to catch in the ear and demand repeat listens.
Empty Me refuses to distill sensation into a lucid melody. It chases the difficulty of grasping fleeting emotions as they pass through the body. Love seems from the outside almost to be a formal impossibility. How can you be sure of your communion with another person when your deepest inner workings remain a mystery? It’s unthinkable, and it happens all the time. With its uncertainty, its wild faith, and its holes worn bare, Empty Me dares to imagine what a love song might sound like in the terrifying, honest moment.
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