When Lillie West described change and growth on her previous album, 2018’s The Lamb, she sounded like her transformations were clawing away at her, like she was powerless to stop them. “I can feel myself beginning to shift / What should I hold, I can’t resist,” the Chicago-via-London musician sang on the album’s anthemic opener, “Destroyer.” On I Want the Door to Open, her Lamb follow-up, she instead views the trials and tribulations of shedding one’s former selves not as a whipping wind, but a lovely journey.
With West’s shift in perspective comes a radical departure from her compressed, yet stadium-ready indie-rock sound. On Door, she goes for a new electro-rock style with the assistance of collaborators including the experimentalists of Chicago’s Sooper Records, a mid-aughts indie-rock founding father, and Why? mastermind Yoni Wolf, with whom she co-produced the album. The music often sounds like it’s passing through a digital fish tank, guitars and synths clattering along in ways that suggest West has accepted that she can’t resist the currents of her life. It’s a perfect match for her focus on how becoming more emotionally intelligent is, at most, a partially conscious process, though one you can retrospectively identify.
That 20/20 hindsight often comes with confusion and regret over past and current versions of herself. “Plates,” which features an airy guest vocal from Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, directly names this shame over a nylon-plucking arrangement that gently spirals in place. West strives for eye contact with her many selves on “Castle Life”: “I wish that I could see / What’s right in front of me / Which reality / Is actuality (fantasy),” she muses. How can we know ourselves, she asks, when we have so many selves coming and going over the years, if not every day?
West uses certain objects to represent how the forces around us distort or enhance our self-image. On “Lava,” she mumble-sings through synth pops and sailing saxes about how different light looks in a mirror than in water, and the metaphor extends to her mortal being. Standing in the latter, maybe her arm looks disconnected from her body, but even if she can see herself properly in the mirror, is that really her? The person she sees there today and saw there yesterday aren’t quite the same. One track later, she’s singing about “wanting to be the color of the pool,” a Narcissus myth in which falling in love with oneself is to be rewarded instead of frowned upon. And again, amid the beaming, bleary oscillations of album highlight “DIVER,” there’s a “pool outside of a window,” a “face distorted in the window,” a “screen where I can call you.”
Screens pop up elsewhere: On “Prove It,” they’re a source of fantasy. “I’m looking for the real thing,” West sings over spare eighth-note guitars that flow seamlessly into muffled handclaps. She airs this confession so breathily it’s like she’s just woken up, her quest for herself at the top of her mind from the very start of her day. Mirrors also return, this time on closer “Utopia Planet,” a psychedelically gleaming, vocoder-filled tune on which West finds that “Everything is here / In real time, no mirror.” Don’t look back, she says; face yourself.
If Door seems a bit cryptic, that’s by design. West has said she intended the album to resemble a “poem or a puzzle box,” and often, the obfuscation is part of the charm. Occasionally, though, there are too many barriers between West and what she wants to say. She steps into Cupid’s shoes on “Straight & Narrow,” a perspective too detached from herself to feel impactful amid her introspection. The lines “All my time I have is diamonds / Rolling around my head” on “DIVER” are more akin to an intentionally misleading gesture than a challenging but logical escape room hint. On that track’s chorus, West sings, “I can’t look directly at it” about the awful visions she sees in a window, and then, she’s “swimming out toward my new life.” There exist infinite visions and projections of herself, and slowly but surely, she’s figuring out which ones are real.
Sometimes, Max Freedman sits and writes about music, and sometimes he just sits. Follow him on Twitter, where he has been hailed as “an incredible person with an incredibly bad internet connection.”