Like the title suggests, Alex Izenberg is something of a harlequin – or at least he like to play the part. The L.A. artist’s debut album is a curious listen, and it seems to thrive on jumping from one point to the next, hopping about from avant-garde classical string arrangements to wistful folk tunes that recall the likes of Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson. He seems to insert sly, referential humour into his lyrics, delivering lines with a knowing ease, like he half expects you to be caught in by his turns of phrase. The Medieval tinge in the style of the album’s artwork only reinforces this idea that he’s playing a character.
Harlequin comes after five years of writing, and that’s definitely heard in the delicacy of some of the arrangements here. The languid pace and sleepy guitar on “The Moon” bobs about like it’s floating in the middle of the ocean, cast in moonlight. “The moon means nothing when you’re not around,” Izenberg declares gently. On “Waltz of the Roots” his guitar sounds snappier, composed to be a sort of indie waltz, as the title suggests, while on “Grace” Izenberg takes his sweet time moving to the song’s final chorus. It constantly seems at risk of falling apart, or just not coming together completely, but it adds to the charm and effect; the song’s final minutes swell with a homespun allure of vocal harmonies and stuttering piano chords.
Elsewhere Izenberg isn’t afraid to cater towards his more curious tastes. “Archer” sweeps by with strings and additional female vocals, but phrases of the song are left to discordant woodwind and quivering flutes, finding no comfortable place to settle. The rigid strings on “Libra” jolt back and forth, presenting an authoritative tone that feels like it’s aiming to sit the listener up straight. On “A Bird Came Down” Izenberg stretches out into what feels like ambient territory for a few minutes, mixing a bright wash of classical noise with looping spoken word snippets. The jump from styles can be a little jarring at first but considering it as a whole allows it settle better. (It’s no surprise that the album’s press release calls Harelquin “a study in distraction.”)
Harlequin is at its best when it adds some simple pep to the mix. Single “To Move On” struts about with a welcome sax accompaniment to Izenberg’s upright piano, and it has the feel of an old soul/blues classic, taking cues from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “You Put A Spell On Me” and the classic Motown sound. “Hot is the Fire” and “Waltz of the Roots” add in itchy guitar stabs, and the latter’s snare hits have it lurching about like it has come from Daniel Rossen’s catalogue. Indeed, Izenberg bears a great resemblance to Rossen, both in the nasal curl of his voice, but also in the classical edge and the tip-toeing guitar lines; Harlequin sounds both like a deconstructed Department of Eagles album, and like it’s taking cues from Grizzly Bear’s early career.
If Harlequin (and Izenberg in general) falters, it’s forgivable for the most part. He paints broad strokes with his lyrics, detailing classic tropes of love, loss, and growing older, only occasionally giving any kind of specific detail (“[People] don’t care about the country / They just care about the old times,” he criticises lightly on “People”). Izenberg’s voice goes between temperaments, and while the moments he sounds like Rossen’s doppelgänger are charming for the familiar feel they bring (he also brings to mind Brooklyn-based songwriter/composer DM Stith when he surrounds himself with a plentiful amount of strings too), the times when he tickles his upper register sound like they need that bit more consideration. With time he’ll no doubt find his voice, and he may just settle in a clearer direction musically, but for now Izenberg can rest happy playing the role he seems happy to fill.