It’s easy to become absorbed by the raw musicianship on display throughout A Calm That Shifts, Brooklyn singer-songwriter Stephen Becker’s debut full-length LP. Its psychedelic pop songs lean into hairpin turns in song structure, style, and emotional affect. Becker’s proficiency as a musician is breathtaking—he plays almost every instrument on the record—evidencing a formidable jazz pedigree and an appreciation for the technical prowess of progressive 2000s indie-rock units like Dirty Projectors, St. Vincent, and Grizzly Bear. It’s difficult to resist playing each of these tracks back to latch onto a musical throughline only caught after it was almost over: a bit of sinuous guitar and synth counterpoint, a pivot between a fractured groove and rhythmic malfunction, or a gorgeous Brian Wilson-reminiscent chord modulation.
Recorded over the course of three years with his childhood friend and producer Adam Hirsch, the record touches on, among so much else, the breakdown of communication between family members, the NYC-specific illusion of a better life lived upstate, a documentary about Elvis’ later years, and Werner Herzog’s essays on film theory. But perhaps its central preoccupation—most clearly explored on “Unspoken”—were childhood memories of being told to speak up by teachers and other adults, and how the concept of quietness factors into the way he lives his life as a near-thirty-year-old.
There is a subtle affinity between Becker’s musical language and libretto on A Calm That Shifts that make the record feel like more than the sum of its parts, and a disarmingly earnest statement. The push and pull between extroversion and reticence in the music evokes Becker’s working model for a life well-lived: the attempt to preserve inner peace and represent one’s self honestly while fending off the myriad factors in the modern world which threaten to disrupt that balance.