The thing about pop is that it’s as much genre as it is history. The two meanings aren’t mutually exclusive; the confusion that they are is ultimately more linguistic than it is musical. It doesn’t help that the former meaning can be so much more nebulous, even esoteric, than the latter; after all, to assess whether something belongs to the historical lineage form of pop you just have to look at what resonated with people and what persisted. But just as there is music that we’d never call pop if it wasn’t actually, well, popular, there’s music that seems ineluctably pop regardless of what ears it attracts. Which category or categories music fits into can be dependent on context, too; until recently, making synth-pop was very much a niche concern, and something like power pop, for instance, still is.
All of which is basically to try to back away a little from how strongly Leverage Models knocked me out when I heard it, so that I can write about it without just scrambling to have a more coherent, expressible response than just to point at the music and say “wow” (without trying to lose the joy present in that “wow”). Right now it seems to exist more in the discipline of pop than in its popular history, but these bright, vivid, intricate songs are exactly the kind of music that leads fans to say it “deserves” to be a hit, the argument always being covertly made that, Do you know how this could change things, if people only just listened?
Leverage Models is Shannon Fields; a number of other musicians contributed to these songs, but as the liner notes put it before listing their work, “Shannon Fields wrote, manipulated, sang, sequenced, and played his songs.” Fields has been a prolific and fascinating artist, collaborator, and producer for years, but he takes center stage here the way he never seemed interested in doing in the wonderful avant-song collective Stars Like Fleas. It will surprise nobody who’s followed Fields from project to project that the result of him following a more individual muse is both disciplined and playful, lush and agile, cerebral and rhythmic, restless and comforting, funny and serious — basically, smart and fun as hell.
Ultimately, this is pop music in the same sense as the New Pop that reshaped and expanded things in such interesting ways after punk: prescriptive and aspirational rather than content to huddle within the boundaries of existing forms and formulas. This, Fields is saying, is part of what pop can and should be too, whether we mean the shape-shifting groove of “Out of the Open (Propositional Representations)” or the skyscraping not-quite-balladry of “The Least of Your Brothers” or the dense twinkle of “Hunting Safety” or the wonderful not-quite-duet with Sharon Van Etten on the shimmering “Sweep.” Leverage Models is deceptively complex on both a macro and micro level; while immediately inviting, just as any given listen to one of the songs here will reveal new details, fillips, and hooks the 20th time through, the album as a whole reveals new interconnections, interplays, resonances each time you play it. You can dig into the lyrics and rich, obliquely nuanced lines about politics, morality, business, medicine, relationships, and art come tumbling out; you can dig into the layered, colorful production and start unpicking all the interweaving strands, balanced just so, individually satisfying but making up something more than the sum of their parts.
But again, the thing is: this is intensely visceral, pleasurable, (literally and emotionally) moving music; it hits the hips and the heart as hard as the head. All of the unpacking and appreciating discussed above (as fun as it is for plenty of music fans) is going to happen after or simultaneously with the sheer pleasure of listening to these songs. Fields has kept busy while working on Leverage Models, still producing and collaborating, and here you feel yourself in the hands of a master of the craft who’s been honing it for years. That doesn’t mean for a second that Leverage Models is safe, or even moderate; Fields yells and howls as much as he croons here, and those lyrics are very much from the perspective of someone smart and decent enough to realize just how out of control and scary the human world can be. One thing that ultimately makes Leverage Models an example of the possibilities and pleasures of pop-as-genre is that is both comforts you and confronts you about that fact. Another bigger thing is that it does so with music so wonderful you might not even notice that particular facet the first few times you hit play.