I want to dismiss Jon Samuel and his album First Transmission as just another sweet-hearted downer with an acoustic guitar. The first song is too jaunty for the morning. I don’t turn it off, but indulge with some gentle swearing at the speakers instead. By fourth track, “Follow the Leader,” distorted vocals reciting “we are drones” crawl up my spine like coffee tendrils. It’s not the robot indictment that gets me, but the music, which has subterranean-acoustic yang.
“Crater,” in the middle of the album, is such a pretty and scary articulation of existential guilt that the airy love songs around it are altered by proximity. “What could I have to tell you about wasting far too many days/How could you answer for charging me guilty before I was born?” It doesn’t matter if Samuel’s question is for God, lover or void—suddenly his surface catchiness isn’t so damning. By the time he sings “Sucked into a black hole where I may roam/Roam forever, around in the dark,” like hell might be an endless free-fall, I have to stub my cigarette prematurely, roused to the small self-deceptions that keep me happily overstimulated.
In contrast, the title track is a love song from a material realm, Samuel’s soft-spoken underground with roots in a tangle of images: “I am the seeing-eye dog/I’m stars/I am the picture of the quiet one.” You might recognize Samuel as the quiet one from Wintersleep, though he makes plenty of noise in his main gig as the group’s multi-instrumentalist.
The album artwork, a hot air balloon floating towards an upside-down “sky” of grass, rhymes with the weightless/heavy inversion at heart of the record. “I was hoping for a reprieve/that your ghost wouldn’t haunt me/Send me someone to love,” he sings on “To Love,” like he’s praying to a spirit in the soil, or the sky.