FEATURES The “Nightmare Pop” of The Scary Jokes By Natalie Marlin · May 26, 2023

Liz Lehman knew their music had to change alongside their life. “I was dealing with different emotions and experiences than I’d dealt with in the past,” they say, explaining how their project The Scary Jokes has evolved over the years. The DIY synth pop that endeared the Pennsylvania musician to a cult audience on albums like April Fools and BURN PYGMALION!!! A Better Guide to Romance was firmly rooted in a past era for them, one they say “would have been more challenging” to emulate. “The door was so shut on that part of my creative career,” Lehman continues. “I probably could have kept experimenting with that, but…why do the same thing over and over again?”

Instead, Lehman turned to a more immediate, raw place on their latest album Retinal Bloom. The mood is darker, and the lyrics relatively abstract compared to the explicit narrative of BURN PYGMALION!!! (an album where Lehman “just wanted to write a musical”). Lehman describes Retinal Bloom with a fitting new shorthand: “nightmare pop.” With a fresh emotional slate—namely stemming from “some challenging interpersonal stuff” and the pandemic “kneecapping [their] ability to interact with people”—as well as a nascent fixation on hardware synths, the shift in both songwriting and sound came naturally for them.

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It also brought the perfect opportunity for Lehman to involve Angel Marcloid, best known for her experimental prog/fusion work as Fire-Toolz, for co-production from the ground up. Though the two previously worked together in remastering April Fools in 2021, Retinal Bloom marked a more involved collaboration in defining the album’s sound. Lehman especially felt Marcloid’s “everything is more” style matched their artistic intent: “It’s like when you pour clear resin over something and it just makes it super shiny and cool,” they say. Marcloid, similarly, loved approaching Lehman’s initial demo tracks as “playgrounds”: “You walk in and there’s toys everywhere, and you’re like, ‘I’m gonna build castles with this,’” she says.

The resulting sound shines on highlight “Uzumaki,” the “major bop of the album,” in Marcloid’s words, that she found herself drawn to working on first. Warped synths and guttural pitch-shifted vocals lay the bedrock for screeching guitars—Lehman’s take on pop-punk chord progressions amplified by Marcloid’s 8-string guitar. It’s more chaotic and restless than any prior Scary Jokes song, exploring the freedom of distortion Lehman found in their Elektron Model:Cyles. Here, Marcloid points out, Retinal Bloom often takes full advantage of one of Lehman’s creative impulses: “You feel this energy and you’re just like, ‘I gotta freak out a little bit more here.’”

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Those freakouts take many forms—as a buzzsaw double-time breakdown that haunts the back half of the otherwise languid “Elephant Foot,” or a noisy slurry barreling through the final stretch of “Our Murderous Descent.” Lehman has a simple explanation for involving more disruptions than ever: “I was feeling pretty feral while I was working on this album.” Their main outlet for indulging that wildness came in letting loose vocally, through screams or wails or growls. Lehman is quick to mention Kate Bush’s influence in this choice: “I was very inspired by how inhuman she can make her voice sound. Between two lines of a song, she’ll be like a creature, and then very delicate.”

Brian Eno also emerges as a touchpoint; Lehman and Marcloid also note their mutual love of Radiohead. Marcloid voices adoration for that band’s earlier rock-heavy sound, while Lehman thanks YouTube tutorials on music theory for getting her properly into the band—“These guys would not shut up about Radiohead and how cool their music is,” they joke. Lehman also expresses their perennial admiration for of Montreal’s proof that “you can do whatever you want” as an artist, inspired by how much they switch genres “seemingly without caring at all about how their fanbase might react.” As Lehman apologizes for “being a dork” about the band, Marcloid teases, perfectly distilling the pair’s dynamic, “You can’t not be a dork when you’re talking about of Montreal, sorry. Dork band.”

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Lehman’s lyrical inspirations are just as varied. In horror media, particularly, they found a source for catharsis, reflected in Retinal Bloom’s references to Jennifer’s Body (2009) (“Riptide”) and the horror manga work of Junji Ito (“Uzumaki”). “My anxieties were pretty high,” Lehman notes, “and it was just a really good emotional outlet to watch a ton of horror movies.” They also found their fixation on dark real-life subjects such as the Heaven’s Gate cult seeping into their lyricism on “Parthenogenesis” and “Retreat to Celestial Bodies.” The exploitative way that topic is often discussed was something Lehman was mindful of, stressing they feel it “deserves to be treated with dignity and understanding, instead of just dismissing [Heaven’s Gate members] as being nuts or feeling like that could never be you.”

On “Retreat to Celestial Bodies,” this evocative empathy shines through. As an instrumental closer following an open-ended final line—“we just have to try for tomorrow,” Lehman sings repeatedly at the end of “Demons of Accident”—it serves as a moment to reflect on what Lehman and Marcloid bring to Retinal Bloom’s sound, leaving the listener to sit with wordless, clarion-like synths for over four minutes. “I guess I have a hard time putting a conclusion at the end of my albums,” Lehman adds, “because I’m not sure that I’m done with the things that I’m processing.” Marcloid is just as pensive: “I think words are only one way of communicating, and there’s a lot of things to communicate that words don’t really work for.”

Like the album’s ending, Lehman and Marcloid also see their own working relationship as open-ended. “I loved getting to know Angel more,” Lehman says. “We were so on the same page for almost every decision.” Marcloid emphasizes how fun the process was above all else: “I want to keep doing stuff like this,” she says. Even as The Scary Jokes gets darker, the shared joy of that collaboration shines through.

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