Honesty is connective. When you dissolve barriers to the truth inside yourself, you also erode the walls that keep you separated from other people. There’s a certain painful beauty in cutting back to yourself, in cleaving away layers of deception until the structure beneath your ego is laid bare. Scrutiny, the debut album from Moaning’s Pascal Stevenson under her new solo alias Fashion Club, explores the mind’s complex relationship to morality, and the way structures of power tend to replicate themselves through unexamined habits. Through lush, dense curtains of sound, the album unfurls a series of searing questions: What’s a lie you held too close? Can you justify your cruelty? Are you listening?
Stevenson began writing the songs that would become Scrutiny toward the end of 2018, as Moaning embarked on a European tour in support of their critically acclaimed first album. Connecting directly with live audiences night after night reinvigorated her relationship to making music. Between shows, in the back of the band’s tour van, she traced early drafts of Scrutiny‘s instrumentals on her laptop, planting the seeds of what would bloom into her captivating solo debut.
In early 2019, about a year after getting sober, the Los Angeles-based musician began the process of threading lyrics into the songs she had written on tour. She found herself in the midst of a deeply generative period of self-reflection. “Not having that veil of intoxication all the time confronts you with an opportunity to inspect a lot of things about yourself,” she says. The writing process also provided an opening for her to consider questions of ethics, responsibility, self-deception, and power more broadly — questions about how deeply systems of social control can take root.
Throughout Scrutiny, Stevenson reflects on the ways that people tend to fortify hegemony while posing as if they are dismantling it – especially in social media spaces, which prioritize image-making over constructive change and genuine connection. “In arts communities, and in culture more broadly, you’re confronted with a lot of people who are performing morality surrounding social issues instead of actually caring,” she says. “To be somebody that’s Black in a predominantly white industry like indie rock, you realize how what people project about who they are and how they treat other people is so at odds with how they actually feel.”
While concocting Scrutiny‘s dreamlike art-rock palette, Stevenson drew inspiration from artists working during the incipient decades of the synthesizer’s lifetime, like Kate Bush, Brian Eno, and Wire’s Colin Newman – musicians whose work bridges the gap between disarming experimentalism and pop pleasure. The album similarly channels the influence of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s tactile, material production on Janet Jackson’s late ‘80s albums Control and Rhythm Nation 1814, records that exploded the potential of digital music-making and entwined the sounds of new technology with the currents of the body.
Songs like “Phantom English,” balanced by a bright synth lead and cavernous bass line, and “Chapel,” whose echoing production evokes infinitely expanding space, transmute digital instrumentation into physical impact – sounds you feel deep in the bone. Bent treble patterns and a driving rhythm section propel “Pantomime,” the album’s opening track and thesis statement, toward its piercing hook, while the towering drumbeats and hypnotic chorus of “Feign For Love” recall the far-reaching, reverb-heavy arrangements of Spellling and Iceage. The album’s swirling layers and unconventionally weighted instrumentation point to the reorientation of the psyche Stevenson tracks in her lyrics; the music’s form skillfully illustrates its content.
Scrutiny marks the first time Stevenson has assumed the lead role in a musical project, and reflects her coming into her own as a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. “I’ve been making music since I was 14, and I’ve never been the front person in a band until this one,” she says. “Trying to take myself out of that behind-the-scenes role was uncomfortable at first. You have to imagine yourself completely differently. To make that shift in your mind is hard. Especially if you have built something up in your mind about how the person that fronts a band has to be perceived. It felt really good and freeing to be in control, because I trusted myself. When you get to a certain level of confidence, you can be more free.”
Through Stevenson’s adventurous arrangements and gripping pop peaks, Scrutiny follows the way a mind can come to know itself – to clear away its protective illusions and ease into greater attunement and clarity – and extends an invitation for anyone listening to pursue the same.