Living up to his cosmic namesake
With a name like “Jsun Atoms,” do you really have a choice to be anything other than a psych-rocker? After spending years as a member of The Upsidedown and Daydream Machine, making his rounds on the festival circuit and performing with the likes of The Jesus and Mary Chain and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the global pandemic spurred this Oregon-based producer and artist to adopt the “Sun Atoms” moniker and enlist longtime collaborator and Dandy Warhols’ guitarist Peter Holmström to produce his debut solo album, Let There Be Light.
It would probably be a bit reductive to slot Let There Be Light as a pure piece of psych-rock since elements of shoegaze, darkwave and other synth-based genres crop up across the project. But an undercurrent of psychedelia still runs through every track, from the cloudy textures to the cosmic lyrics.
Psychedelic music is all about distance—getting eight miles high, floating 2,000 light years from home, kicking into interstellar overdrive. This album is no exception, so an interesting contrast arises between the sense of distance and Atoms’ voice, which is a hell of a lot earthier than what his stage name might lead you to expect. Leonard Cohen is the most obvious point of reference for Atoms’ gravely deadpan. But whereas the intimacy of Cohen’s voice was augmented by his musical backdrops, any sense of intimacy that might be gleaned from Atoms’ vocals is undercut by many of these dreamy instrumentals.
“Half Robot Half Butterfly” sounds like Cohen fronting a shoegaze band, with a cascade of reverb-soaked guitars and a soaring lead line redolent of The Cure counterposed to Atoms’ grounded delivery. Still, he knows when to shed the rasp in favor of a timbre that’s smoother and more palatable, like on “Don’t Take Me to Your Leader,” the catchiest cut on the entire thing. It was the lead single for good reason.
Atoms’ lyrics occasionally fall victim to the sort of pseudo-mysticism often associated with psychedelia, from “inside your mind, you find an eye” on “The Cat’s Eye” to the references to tarot cards and stardust that abound on “Half Robot Half Butterfly” (one can practically smell the patchouli). This gives off an air of self-seriousness, especially on “Two Wolves and a Lamb Voted on What’s for Dinner,” during which Atoms sings about skulls, rolling heads, funerals, monsoons and Edgar Allen Poe.
The lyrics are best when they’re kept simple and direct, like on “Don’t Take Me to Your Leader,” when Atoms and his cadre of background vocalists sing “If I know one thing, it’s that I don’t know,” channeling thinkers like Socrates and Operation Ivy. Then on the final track, “Praying Mantis,” he delivers the most plainspoken, memorable line on the entire project: “Fuck the powers that be.”
Let There Be Light might suffer from occasional psych-rock pretensions, but altogether it presents an enjoyable take on the genre with its subtle genre-bending and its juxtaposing of Atom’s gravely vocals with the hazy, synth-heavy soundscapes. His mysticism could be done without, but by the strength of the music alone, Atoms has managed to live up to his cosmic namesake.