Alabaster DePlume is a lot of things—a saxophonist, a poet, an arranger, a social node in London’s jazz scene—but above all, he’s a person who wants you to treat yourself with more kindness, gentleness, and self-respect. On GOLD, his second album for International Anthem, he applies self-love like an exfoliant, scraping off the old skin of cynicism and exposing the clean and vulnerable surface below. He is, as he says multiple times on this record, “brazen, like a baby,” and while that means the Mancunian musician born Gus Fairbairn is often agog at the fresh beauty of the world, it also means he’s uniquely attuned to its difficulties. Even when it’s comforting, GOLD is not comfortable.
GOLD follows 2020’s To Cy and Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1, an astounding collection of songs DePlume developed from melodies he made up with the titular pair, two men with learning disabilities he met while working for a Manchester non-profit. The same mutual care is at work throughout GOLD. The album was recorded over a couple of weeks in long, improvised sessions DePlume later stitched together into songs. None of the players were given the music beforehand, and no one was allowed to listen to playback. The entire ensemble was forced to feel their way through the sessions, an extramusical effect that could be maddeningly twee if the results weren’t so consistently breathtaking.
Despite its evangelical spirit and its benedictory subtitle, Go Forward in the Courage of Your Love, GOLD is aimed primarily at its creator. In “Don’t Forget You’re Precious,” DePlume turns the song toward himself, running through the trivial things he calls to mind more easily than his self-worth: PINs, old email addresses, Instagram. As a saxophonist, he plays in series of short phrases that ripple with the soft wind of a bedsheet being fluffed, but his vocals carry a hint of decadence, and he takes an evident pleasure in the feeling of the words, especially when he makes his way to an emotional punchline. “I remember my shame,” he finally sings in “Precious,” exhaling the song’s key like it’s the final winning phrase of an incantation.
In “I’m Good at Not Crying,” he rolls through all the ways he makes his personality disappear—he’s “not needing,” “not demanding,” “not making a scene”—in a soft deadpan. Girl-group harmonies swirl around him, their phrases going in and out of legibility, while a guitar pinches its way to the top of a melody and slackens back down again. The mix dips DePlume into a slow-moving spree, its lack of center mirroring the evasiveness of the lyrics. “I don’t know, you know?” he warily repeats as a drumbeat tries to shake him out of it. In the ensuing song, “Now (Stars Are Lit),” he wails freely on his sax, finally letting out the frustrations he couldn’t work his way toward in the prior song.
DePlume’s guiding idea on GOLD is to alchemize fear into courage and love. It’s difficult work—there’s a soft patience to this music that suggests he knows he could be burned at any moment. That caution tempers the exuberance of a song like “Fucking Let Them,” in which a spoken-word manifesto gives way to a waxy jam from the ensemble. There’s a tacit acknowledgment of pain in nearly every track here, a subtle reminder that people don’t tend to search for peace unless they’re experiencing its opposite. Part of the album’s genius comes from its construction—because the structure was applied after the fact, and because the individual players were so attuned to one another, the songs are rich with possibility. Plenty of quiet music feels this way, of course, but the ensemble never seems to be straining toward the next movement; their stillness wouldn’t rattle crepe paper.