Melina Duterte's careful, wise, and excellent album is the rare debut that expands the borders of a genre. It's not bedroom-pop because it sounds a certain way, but because it feels so intimate.
“The Bus Song”—
Virtuous though it may be, patience is a difficult quality to capture in guitar rock, a medium that much prefers boldness, concision, and urgency. Perhaps that’s why Bay Area multi-instrumentalist Melina Duterte’s reverence for the human capacity to wait and think and grow comes across as a revelation on Everybody Works, her first official album as Jay Som. “Take time to figure it out,” she advises on lead single “The Bus Song.” In its context, she’s caught between relationship statuses, assuring the object of her fixation that she’ll “be the one who sticks around.” As an introduction to an album full of reminders not to rush things, though, the line is a relief, enough to make you involuntarily exhale.
Bedroom pop is a genre designation that loses meaning by the year—not just as technology creeps closer to erasing any distinction between studio production and home recording, but also as the musicians associated with it develop tastes more varied and less retro than, say, Ariel Pink’s. Twenty-two-year-old Duterte made the fuzzy, dreamy, plaintive aesthetic her own on Turn Into, nine self-recorded tracks she uploaded to Bandcamp on a tipsy whim over a year ago and re-released with Polyvinyl in late 2016, billing the makeshift debut as a collection of “finished and unfinished songs” rather than a proper album. Although she made Everybody Works alone in her bedroom studio, its repertoire ranges from folk to funk to chart pop. It’s not a bedroom-pop album because it sounds a certain way, but because it feels so intimate. Most of Duterte’s elaborate songs could be mistaken for full-band compositions, yet her preference for writing and recording in solitude imbues each one with an introspective quality.
Liberated from the obligation to conform to any one sound, Duterte investigates new styles with purpose. She’s smitten with Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, and it shows in the hooky choruses of “The Bus Song” and “Remain,” two tracks steeped in exuberant longing. With its smooth keyboards and slinky bass line, “Baybee” comes on like an R&B slow jam, but instead of steaming up the windows, it’s about seducing yourself into seeing your beloved through a rough patch: “If I leave you alone/When you don’t feel right/I know we’ll sink for sure,” Duterte coos on top of the music, like a layer of pure calm. “1 Billion Dogs” submerges anxious lyrics in a cloud of feedback that melds shoegaze, indie pop, and grunge as if it were a forgotten gem from the DGC Rarities compilation.
But the most arresting songs are the ones that defy categorization entirely. The first minute of the album, on “Lipstick Stains,” sounds the way orchestra instruments might upon waking from an afternoon nap, blinking and stretching in the sunlight. When the vocals kick in more than halfway through the track, Duterte’s murmur is just as drowsily blissful: “I like the way your lipstick stains/The corner of my smile,” she breathes. Everybody Works closes with “For Light,” an epic, seven-minute ballad that transforms a whispered promise—“I’ll be right on time/Open blinds for light/Won’t forget to climb”—into a sing-along prayer by adding in the voices of backup singers. The mood of weary resilience is reminiscent of Nick Cave’s “Push the Sky Away,” another album-closing message of encouragement that fully acknowledges the herculean effort it takes, sometimes, to merely keep going.
As that comparison suggests, Duterte has absorbed more of life’s hard lessons than most of us do by age 22. The patience that suffuses Everybody Works doesn’t reflect the naïveté of a kid who’s sure she has unlimited time to chase her ambitions and find love; it comes out of an emotionally mature view of relationships and the 10 years of work she has already put into her songwriting, taking shitty jobs and enduring family strife to become the musician she is today. “I’ll remain under your moon,” she pledges on “Remain,” an anthem of (perhaps one-sided) commitment. “Everybody Works” registers Duterte’s resentment at how easily success seems to come to the “rock star” who make her wonder, “Did you pay your way through?” But empathy wins out in the end; she makes “everybody works” a mantra, repeating the phrase as though to remind herself of the way other people’s painstaking efforts can be invisible to us.
“All of my songs are so different, but you know it’s me,” Duterte remarked in a recent Pitchfork profile. She’s right, and there’s no better indicator that a songwriter has found her voice than the ability to explore new styles and still sound like the same artist. Just a few years into her adult life, and only one album into her recording career, Melina Duterte has swept past a milestone many musicians never even get in their sights.