By JESSIE WEBER
If you try to find information on Garrett Borns, the 23-year-old emerging indie rock prodigy from Michigan, you won’t find much. And if you’ve listened to his single “Electric Love,” you might be surprised to discover that his love used to be almost exclusively acoustic. In 2012, before he took on the stage name BØRNS, he released an E.P. under his given name, titled A Dream Between. Throughout, he sounds more or less like a fourth Hanson brother who was just too young to sing along during their prime. This might be why each of the E.P.’s songs only have a few hundred YouTube hits.
Happily, in the three years between A Dream Between and his subsequent release of Candy earlier this year, BØRNS has latched onto the ability to produce music that stuns in both acoustic and electric form. While he’s retained that same high, honeyed voice, he’s found solace in a group of fellow musicians and a synthesizer. The question after the release of Candy was no longer whether he could produce a proper sound, but whether he would be able to produce enough music to continue moving forward.
BØRNS answered that question as he released Dopamine, his first studio album, last week. Walking back from work in an unseasonably early snow, I gave the album a first listen. The snow melted before it hit the ground, and the sun hung back behind an overcast sky, but the voice and the instruments spun out ahead on the pavement. The first song, “10,000 Emerald Pools,” opens with the promise, “I’ll dive in deeper, deeper for you,” expanding into a sound that is at times dream pop, and at times leans into electronica. From the slightly hallucinogenic ache and twitch of “Clouds” to the euphoric chorus of “Electric Love,” there’s no song in this album that tries the same trick twice.
Still, the tracks somehow fit together in a strange but serendipitous jigsaw puzzle of an album. Trailing guitar notes followed behind me on the sidewalk. Clouds collected around the sun and BØRNS crooned about the “paradise in your eyes, green like American money” before his voice slid off into silence for another few moments. Lana Del Rey would be proud of the notes his voice lazily spirals out on and of his small nods to popular culture, but it doesn’t feel like he’s paying any kind of homage to her with this music.
No — if Del Rey is the embodiment of a strung-out guest at a pool party drifting away on a sinking inner tube, BØRNS is a lone ice skater staring you down from the far side of a frozen lake. His voice is the smoothest, warmest ice that you’ve ever slipped on. And you will slip. “Heaven knows I’m miserable, Hell takes all the credit, though.” Drum beats like horses’ hooves lurk behind the lyrics, and his vocals are goaded into the open by short jabs of electric guitar and long synthesizer runs. This is an album that’s built in a perpetual winter — it’s cold, it’s distant, but you really don’t mind at all.
Of course, it’s an imperfect album. “God, you really outdid yourself with this one,” may not be the most inspired line. Admittedly, none of the lyrics make me feel as if E. E. Cummings has risen from the grave to pay his respects to American artistry. Often, the same lines are repeated from song to song. The line, “Baby, baby, baby, can you take away my pain,” of “Dopamine” reflexively conjures up an image of an adolescent Justin Bieber. But the delivery of these potato-chip lyrics is really the redeeming factor in this album. The music falters for a moment as he croaks out, “It’s inevitable ain’t it? You left without saying …” only a few songs before he cries out, “Let me satisfy your soul, not a saint but do I have to be?” Whoever this album is about, she’s clearly taking him on the ride of his life.
Will the Class of ’42 still be listening to BØRNS? Probably not. Is Dopamine a groundbreaking album? Definitely not. But does it break ground for the artist? Absolutely. In “Past Lives,” BØRNS is calling out to someone, saying “I’ve got the strangest feeling this isn’t our first time around.” By the time I reached the end of the album, I had the strangest feeling that it wasn’t going to be our last, either.