Album Review: Sunset Neon – Starlight

Sunset Neon’s debut album is a smorgasbord of retro-flavored synth music that tosses the past and present together in an enticing blend of commercial pop music. Its most admirable quality is its willingness to experiment, combining EDM, nu disco, synthwave, funk, and other ingredients into a musical gumbo and adding a healthy amount of modern mainstream production. The experiment finds success thanks to top-flight execution and an unmistakable knowledge and love for the source material. With its broad array of song styles and enticing delivery, Starlight offers a wealth of music that can hook listeners on its very first spin.

Starlight is the first full-length album from Sunset Neon, the newest musical undertaking from the artist behind the electronic-rock project Blue Stahli. Sunset Neon’s ability to adeptly incorporate influences from at least a dozen distinct styles of music sets him apart from nearly every artist working in the retro pop scene. While talented creators like Damokles and Beckett maintain their focus on genuinely retro sounds, Sunset Neon takes aim at broader relevance with a distinctly contemporary approach to the music’s delivery. Starlight features a commercial flair that aspires to FM radio more than recognition in the retrowave underground. Its high production value and glossy vocal style contain a genuine radio pop vibe that shimmers along every wavelength, and it’s tough to resist the album’s overt confidence.

Starlight’s tremendous diversity means it cannot be described as a whole; each of its songs warrants its own description, and touching on the most notable entries is the only way to properly describe the album’s multi-colored musical tapestry. The album kicks off with its most traditionally synthwave-centric piece, “Opening Title Sequence.” It’s a dark, moody piece that recalls soundtracks to ‘80s horror and action flicks, though younger listeners may associate it more closely with the Stranger Things opening theme.

Despite the gloomy tone of the opener, the album promptly follows with the bright and buoyant “Got You,” a bass-heavy, future funk concoction that echoes creations from FiXT label mate Scandroid. The track isn’t one of the album’s most rewarding compositions, though its highly likable tone and engaging rhythm makes it an ideal opener that will quickly get listeners bobbing their heads.

The dance vibe expands significantly on the very next entry, “Lazer Pink,” an inviting EDM-meets-nu disco piece with a straightforward style that succeeds on the strength of its attractive main melody and infectious percussion. A short break at the center of the song withdraws the heavy bass and introduces subtle synth tones for a chill and perfectly executed intermission before the dance-floor-friendly track resumes its full character.

The quality of Starlight’s opening moment takes a dip on “Never Dance Again,” whose insistent rhythmic throb seems custom-tailored for Generation Z listeners who prefer to bounce to their music instead of dance, an idea inadvertently reinforced by the song title. The track would be at home on a Pepsi commercial for a Super Bowl halftime show, and it easily represents the least sophisticated piece of music on the recording. The repetitive beat, soulless electric guitar riff, and heavy-handed vocals grow wearisome even before the song can finish its brief two-minute duration. Almost self-consciously, the song cuts off at just over two minutes, making it a brief hiccup in the album’s overall quality.

The mercifully short “Never Dance Again” leads into an attractively funky piece called “Everything.” The dense rhythm of the verse has distinct notes of old school freestyle and electro, recalling the most groove-worthy creations from Prince’s ‘80s discography, and the percussive detail guides a supplementary and suitably smooth singing style. The handsome vocal track is most responsible for the Prince vibe, though it also represents the song’s only setback when it shifts to a repetitive and unnecessary chant on the chorus. The hook’s simplicity detracts from the meticulously structured instrumentation and breaks the subtle groove of the musical space in the verse, unfortunately dampening the song’s otherwise excellent presentation.

Starlight’s prettiest and most introspective piece comes in the form of the title track. Breaking up the album’s danceable moments with its soft synth melodies and subdued rhythm near the recording’s midpoint, it features reverb-heavy vocals that come across like a dreamwave incarnation of the Backstreet Boys. The millennium-era vocal phrasing is accented by spacey synthesizer notes that sparkle through the background for the album’s most elegant and melodic offering. It’s a standout track whose assortment of attractive melodies remain enticing for the song’s duration.

More diversity ensues in “Tonight,” which takes flight as a Top Gun-style anthem, chugging along with electric guitar chords and a driving rhythm. It’s the musical equivalent of racing a fighter jet on a sportbike, and despite the open-armed embrace of one of the ‘80s most kitsch musical styles, “Tonight” succeeds on the strength of Sunset Neon’s earnest songwriting skills. The finished product is surprisingly easier to embrace than its opening moments would suggest, and it adds yet another element of interest to Starlight’s diverse soundscape.

Late in the recording, the echo of Prince heard in “Everything” comes to the forefront in the form of a masterful rendition of The Artist’s “Kiss.” In contrast with Prince’s signature sparse, understated compositional style, Sunset Neon has blown open the instrumentation of the track, infusing it with deep bass tones and more freestyle percussion, replacing the quiet guitar break of the original with a tremendously funky interlude accented with brassy synth tones. A highly faithful vocal reproduction seals the song, and the result finds a praiseworthy space between accurate homage and experimental interpretation. In fact, after a few plays of Sunset Neon’s version, the Prince original starts to feel startlingly like an unfinished demo track.

Like the recent offering from The Midnight, Sunset Neon targets a mainstream audience first and incorporates retro elements peripherally, which means that retrowave purists are likely to struggle with Starlight’s modern commercial gleam. However, unlike The Midnight, Sunset Neon delivers diverse and stimulating content that leaps from the speakers and demands to be heard for its duration. Those who reject the album for its commercial flavor will miss out on an appetizing platter of synth sounds that stimulate the listener’s palate with perfectly contrasting and complementing flavors, each one a vibrant and unique musical experience in its own right.

The largest downside to the recording is its lack of staying power. Like all commercial pop music, the songs are designed to grab listeners on the first play, which necessarily means they lack the depth and subtlety needed to reward multiple spins. It’s not possible to have it both ways; however, Sunset Neon’s unabashed embrace of glossy pop anthems makes it difficult to denounce the artist for succeeding in his endeavor to produce a collection of highly accessible musical gems. Starlight may not be an album for the ages, but it’s unmistakably an album for the present.

Sunset Neon takes tremendous risks with the songwriting on his debut, and the willingness to tackle a different musical style on every piece has the potential of backfiring in a big way. With relatively minor exceptions, the risks pay off. Starlight’s pieces are not just satisfying individually, but their unwavering uniqueness somehow forms a cohesive musical package that provides something new and interesting at every turn. The undeniable songwriting chops and high-gloss finish of Starlight confidently represent multiple eras at once, creating an exciting slice of pop music that is both capable and deserving of reaching a large audience.

Rating: 88 / 100

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