Rostam’s third studio album is one at the end yet not past conflict. Nevertheless, it is still a charming and fulfilling listen.
Rostam Batmangali is a man who takes his time. It’s been four years since his last record, Half-Light, created the template for queer indie-poppers like Troye Sivan. He wasn’t absent in those years; rather, he chose to give his solo work room to breathe: “‘Unfold You’ took years. In some ways, it had to—because the recording of the song tracks an evolution and a personal change,” he told Apple Music. Although the 37-year-old indie-pop producer is (still) best known for his work as a founding member and producer of Vampire Weekend, his resume boasts collaborations with the most premier names in the genre, from Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX, to Frank Ocean and Tokyo Police Club.
The “phobia” of the album’s title suggests a more pensive record, one where development is inhibited, but that fear was misplaced: the change seems good for Rostam. On the title track, he ponders “Is it just changephobia / That makes us scared / Of doing what we should?” The title acknowledges the anxiety that can hinder artists from fully exploring their passions, but doesn’t give it control of the project. But that undercurrent is still present and is perhaps his greatest weakness.
When he escapes that mental pratfall, the results are captivating. The album highlight “4Runner” presents a delirious head high, a rush of a new love at its most exciting, the percussion propelling the listener down the highway with them. The vehicular romance continues with “From The Back of A Cab,” which sees Rostam cherishing the ephemeral hour-long cab ride to the airport at the end of a vacation. At points, this terminal happiness and romance veers perilously close to the quixotic monotony of Shawn Mendes’ Wonder, but Rostam pulls back enough to keep his music from careening off that cliff.
While Rostam may occasionally mumble his lyrics rather than sing them, at no point does he sound apprehensive or anxious about his vocals, consistently delivering vulnerable and magnetic performances across the record. Rather than cringey, it’s undoubtedly endearing to hear an introvert so enamored with his love for music that it compels him to perform. Instead, it’s when he feels pressure to perform as a producer that his anxieties begin to peer through his work.
What is quickly identified as one of his defining sonic features is a heavy reliance on tension that blankets the otherwise straightforward approach of his pop tunes. While this plays out respectably most of the time, that dissonance occasionally sounds trite or unproductive. On “Starlight,” Rostam takes his quirk too far, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that it was only mangled to be sonically consistent with other tracks on the album. While the producer may not be too in his head regarding his vocals, he overtheorizes his arranging.
For a cerebral introvert like Rostam, there will continue to be a push and pull between his creative passions and his willingness to be vulnerable. Naming that conflict is the first step in conquering it, and he’s by and large on his way to doing so.