In the autumn of 2014 Alex Izenberg crossed Los Angeles, to where an old Yamaha upright piano stood in the corner of his friend Oliver's house. Throughout the city, in certain rooms and at uncertain times, the vibrant incantations of the 24 year old native Californian's beguiling musical project had slowly been coming together over the preceding months. What began as a free-form experiment rooted in playful collaboration between singer-songwriter Izenberg and producer and arranger Ari Balouzian soon had become an album demanding full artistic focus and a name. As iridescent as its namesake, 'Harlequin' is a multi-faceted collection of audacious and perfectly strange songs that set out to dazzle and disrupt in equal measure.
It would be precarious to pigeonhole Izenberg. The flair of his writing style, his melodic instincts and compositional choices will keep the listener shifting always. His is a provocative, contrary talent which flaunts the lessons of great American songwriting with gleeful mischief - exploding elegant moments of almost preternatural grace and poignancy with episodes of chaos, confusion and downright absurdity with dizzying frequency.
'Harlequin' may be Izenberg's debut album proper but it also marks the culmination of over five years of highly prolific writing and recording under a variety of pseudonyms, all of which have seen the reclusive young artist marry a frightfully natural gift for naive and romantic melody with a wild sonic adventurousness born of a genuinely eccentric nature. Izenberg's earliest recordings invoke the feel of Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Van Dyke Parks and even Elton John in scruffy miniature and the familiar specter of those titans of 70s songwriting remain here in timeless moments such as the soaring chorus of 'To Move On' and 'Grace's elegant lilt but they are distorted, warped and corrupted until they sound something new and deeply peculiar.
As an artist born in the early 1990s, Izenberg's listening habits are online - voracious and diverse -and the sonics of his own music bear this out. 'Harlequin' is almost a study in distraction - a restless, feverish dream-sequence which variously invokes Scott Walker's obtuse, off-kilter worlds of sound, Simon and Garfunkel's psychedelic yet practical string arrangements, the vaudevillian pomp and preening of Wild Beast's early material and Grizzly Bear's pastoral early steps. All this is cut through with moments of total silence, patches of noise, found sound and countless dynamic left-turns and moment of non-sequitur.
'Harlequin' is a colourful, imp-like fantasy of a record, full of concealed charm and mischief - the personalities of its strings, the horns and the echoes of the myriad rooms in which it was recorded all coming alive as supporting characters in its winding plot. Yet for all this complexity it is also still a deeply human and relatable record at its core. Very much a hometown record, it takes its cues from the way in which fiction and reality are at constant play in everyday life in a city unlike no other; setting simple, universal themes of love, loss, grief and confusion against the heat, haze, magic and madness of the Los Angeles of Izenberg's vivid imagination.
And what a vivid imagination it is. Speaking to the reticent Izenberg about his process gives one the impression that these songs existed fully-formed in his mind long before they were finally committed to tape by Balouzian and co-producer Dash LeFrancis and then mixed by Chet 'JR' White (Girls, Tobias Jesso Jr.) In fact, it almost seems like, to Izenberg, the songs exist almost entirely independently of himself, as if they have a life entirely of their own and he is just their custodian or keeper. Or as he puts it "When writing I just ask myself, what does this song need from me? And then I give it what it needs."
"What it needs", could be the gorgeous auto-tune refrain of "dear Grace, how long?" at the close of the otherwise prim and proper ballad 'Grace', a jarring moment of cyborg beauty that arrives out of nowhere but somehow compliments Balouzian's classical string flourishes and Izenberg's own high, uneasy harmonies perfectly. Or it could be the bombastic saxophones that prance through the chorus of 'To Move On' as if played by the band of a high school Izenberg would no doubt have been expelled from. It could be the minute long, flickering extra- terrestrial drone that the otherwise sweeping, grandiose 'The Farm' suddenly melts into or the frankly evil sounding choir of discordant chanting which gatecrashes the close of 'Archer'.
It could be anything really, such is the nature of Izenberg's audacity and the specificity of his vision. "It just came out of me", he says with characteristically contrary simplicity, "it just reflected how I was feeling at the time".