Caroline Rose takes us to Sunset Boulevard and back on her third album ‘Superstar’, a record full of independence and fierce aspiration – and synths.
Though Caroline Rose states that Superstar is an album charting a fictional character, it is difficult to ignore the narrative similarities it shares with its creator. The unconventional nature of the protagonist’s journey is uncannily similar to Rose’s own self-identification as an outsider, whilst the single-mindedness of Superstar’s journey can only be viewed adjacent to the fact that Caroline Rose wrote and produced the album, her fourth, on her own.
The cinematic nature of Superstar can also not be ignored. Rose notes that the album is not only inspired by films such as “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” and “Mulholland Drive”, but also by the more unpalatable drama which goes into the rise and fall of an A-list career. Whether a projected, fictionalised autobiography or not, Superstar is daring, rich, and funny. The album grows increasingly dark as its journeys through its three fantasised acts, but it is always grounded by its candid reflections on pain, as well as fantastic, witty lyrics.
Stream: ‘Superstar’ – Caroline Rose
“Nothing’s Impossible” chimes into life, unfolding like the sides of a cinema screen in those tantalising moments before the film starts. It is a rich, wall-to-wall introduction, characterised by splashing, 80s synths which immediately envelope you in the style and substance of Superstar.
Suddenly I heard the phone ring;
I knew it was my destiny,
Calling me from the Chateau Marmont lobby
Caroline Rose’s voice is suddenly in three different places at once, and yet unwaveringly confident. It’s like we are listening to her within a hall of mirrors: there are straightforward lead vocals followed by faux-inspirational whispers, and then faraway dialogue which serves as a reflective voiceover.
“Nothing’s Impossible” is a shimmering opener, immersive but not disorientating. Rose doubles down on the ambition present in the lyrics by adventurously incorporating multiple scenes into the mood of the track. There are stripped-back moments with dreamy, elongated vocals, and yet Rose manages to avoid disrupting the song’s flow. When it does wind down, we are seemingly transported to the aforementioned hotel via an instrumental segue, complete with lobby music which is undercut with luxuriously lazy bass guitar.
Buoyed-up by synchronised claps and more slick bass, next track “Got To Go My Own Way” neatly maps out Rose’s route to fame and fortune. The track is an ode to the slightly cliched minutiae of celebrity life, and Rose’s fantasised path towards it.
Her voice is low and fuzzy at first, offset by high punches from the synths. Roles are reversed when her vocals become higher and more urgent, and the instrumentation pivots downwards in reply. The track is thus smartly balanced, meaning Caroline Rose does not lose control when the lyrical emotion increases.
Rose visualises her “new life”, complete with performative acts of kindness for local children, weekends in Paris, and front-row seats at LA Lakers games, but “Got To Go My Own Way” isn’t just about attainment. The road to success will be strewn with relics of Rose’s past. Rose sings that she was “born to be a star”, tying her ambition to a sense of destiny, as in “Nothing’s Impossible”, yet she will have to leave loved ones, her home, and indeed her past behind. Perhaps this journey will be worth it, though, as one can feel the liberation in Rose’s voice as she belts out the song’s titular refrain.
A grainy, black-and-white introduction hints at the past Rose is intending to leave behind, at the start of “Do You Think We’ll Last Forever?” Yet another enjoyable bassline dusts off the cobwebs. In contrast to the intentionally tired delivery of Caroline Rose’s lines, there is an irresistible swagger to the bassline, which seems only to stop when claps, some played backwards, playfully pepper the song. The fatigued vocal style soon gives way to Rose’s trademark wry lyricism, and livelier vocals; Rose poses the awkward question “Do You Think We’ll Last Forever?”, with the tongue-in-cheek caveat of “no pressure”, before demanding a simple “yes or no”. Rose’s winning combination of humour and believable emotion is as effective as it is rare.
However, there is also growing panic underneath the track:
I’m alright, I’m alright,
I’m alright and it’s just a phase,
I’m alright, I’m alright,
I’m alright, it’s just a heart attack
The pressure begins to tell, and cracks show, as the lyrics become more doubtful and questioning than in previous tracks, with Rose even asking if she’s at the “end” or “beginning.”
About three-quarters of the way through, Superstar’s third track undergoes a transformation, changing tone unrecognisably in what is a potential hint at her growing anxiety. What was previously a toying, almost conversational song, turns on a sixpence after a pause and two claps; strings slide upwards before “Do You Think We’ll Last Forever?” explodes into a delightfully psychedelic last thirty seconds. It is music in technicolor, surround sound, and three-dimensions, yet, whilst it burns brightly, the final section ends as quickly as it began. On the surface, this altered mood at the song’s end is simply a thrilling climax to the track, but the emotions it provides perhaps suggest that, despite leaving everything behind, our superstar does not have their mind as firmly made-up as Rose made us believe.
“Feelings Are a Thing of the Past” acts as a cinematic transition between acts. The song title suggests that the emotions of the first third of the album are being overcome, and that Rose will not compromise on her way to Beverly Hills. The song is a segue, ebbing along with strings and faraway vocals whilst Superstar’s scenery changes behind the curtain. On the other side, we will find our protagonist more assured and independent than before.
The ethereal qualities of “Feelings Are a Thing of the Past” are swiftly blown away by more self-assertive bass guitar, this time announcing “Feel The Way I Want.” Caroline Rose’s growing autonomy is instantly evident, her confidence radiating out via ascending synths and lively, theremin-inspired digital tones.
I’m so in love with myself, it’s so romantic”
I see ‘em staring as I walk down the line,
I’m looking good, I don’t think it’s a crime
But everybody’s so quick to stand up
and say got to be this way or that way,
Gotta ask yourself ‘is this really what I wanted?’
Everybody’s so quick to cry out
and say ‘you got to get your shit together’
Well baby watch me freak out
Gonna feel the way I want to…
Rose’s vocals are smooth and purposeful, and you can feel the bounce in her step which she so joyously exhibits in the song’s music video. Off-beat electric organs stand out in the chorus, enhancing the conviction and freedom present in the lyrics. Her voice then cascades downwards, with synths in hot pursuit, as if the instrumentation cannot keep pace with Rose’s stride.
“Feel The Way I Want” is a fantastically feel-good song, but it is also defiant and self-confident. It feels like a cathartic anthem, with Rose throwing off more pressure with every line.
This is surely linked to her own musical journey outside of Superstar, on top of the narrative considerations of the album. After a swift rise in popularity and pay-checks after the success of her third album Loner, Rose has said she found herself disorientated and unsure of her place; “Feel The Way I Want” is Rose deciding that she can make a place for herself, unshackled by expectation.
In spite of its dreamy musicality, “Freak Like Me” is in fact primarily sadomasochistic. Like so many of Rose’s tracks, it is frank and funny, but also adds handcuffs, defecation, and “steel-toed combat boots” into the mix. Rose appears to find self-identification in the hurt and control present in the lyrics, and at points relates to the sadomasochism in an almost romantic sense, too. This depth and ambiguity prevent “Freak Like Me” from becoming seedy or one-dimensional. The beat which underpins the track borders on the industrial, and vocal “ah”s litter the background of the song, possibly nodding to its lyrical content.
Interestingly, it is one of Superstar’s most understated songs. Rose uses a slightly clipped singing voice, meaning “Freak Like Me” comes across as almost matter-of-fact. The confidence acquired across Superstar, and the serenity with which Rose handles her song, are such that the sadomasochism is humorous, and feels disarmingly routine.
In truth, “Someone New” is a murkier song, but equally as strong. The melody tracks alongside Rose’s description of her morning routine, whilst remaining slightly distorted by the dark synths which run through the song. It feels at once both retro and refreshing. The electric keys soon wrap around a fantastic, pounding bassline, however, and “Someone New” becomes increasingly, pleasingly oppressive.
Rose’s voice becomes more heightened, breathy and close, in contrast to an intentionally mundane opening. This perfectly mirrors the transformation at the heart of the lyrics:
Starting today I shed my skin, begin again,
Ruthless, cut-throat, breaking bread with evil men,
Next time we meet you’ll hardly recognise me
There is alarm throughout, both palpable in the vocals, and in whirring, musical form. At its most intense points, “Someone New” feels like it is closing in around you, the synths suddenly claustrophobic and cold, to great effect. In spite of the conviction with which she acts, our Superstar feels vulnerable, compared to the relative safety of the album’s early dreams. The closer Rose’s protagonist gets to their imagined LA, the more it feels like it will fall apart. It is a riveting cross-country odyssey.
Superstar returns to the Chateau Marmont, or at least another bustling lobby or concourse, evoked by the echoing jingle of “Pipe Dreams.” Rose again uses her lyrics to subvert the style of her song: her delivery is lackadaisical and almost unsentimental, tying in with the recognisably dated chimes, yet the music belies a relentless ambition which pours out of the lyrics.
Though it begins like you’re cramped inside an elevator, “Pipe Dreams” is a song of unrivalled scope. Rose does not settle for B-list luxuries, aiming instead for the very best and most decadent that success has to offer. Again, Rose reiterates her desire to leave past lives behind, forgetting about family and friends after becoming “Someone New”, instead suggesting a fresh marriage and a new family.
Nevertheless, Rose’s protagonist cannot evade the cracks which have opened up during their transcontinental journey: the tinny guitar scratches and scrapes throughout, enhancing the sense of realism which the song’s slightly mocking title evokes. It is not a huge emotional signpost, but it is a conspicuous move away from Superstar’s formerly soaring synths.
Forget about your family,
I don’t care what all your friends say,
Forget about that seed of doubt
they planted deep inside your head
Though essentially another segue, “Command Z” reveals much about the latter trajectory of Superstar, and so sets up the last two tracks neatly. “Command Z” is, tellingly, the keyboard shortcut for ‘undo’, which serves to build on the disquiet which has slowly risen throughout the middle section of the album. It is a fissured track, containing two tandem voices, as well as an additional frenzied vocal which sounds trapped behind layers of Perspex. However, it is not about looking to revert back to a previous time, but to come back stronger in the pursuit of greatness: “God, I just don’t want this to end / undo, I’m gonna do it again.”
If I could do this again, I’d come back as a white flag,
And pacify my existence,
’Cause if you don’t think we’re in hell now
babe then take another look around:
Everything’s engulfed in flames,
it’s all coming down
Following up on a desire to do things differently in “Command Z,” is “Back At The Beginning,” a rueful look back at the journey which Rose’s Superstar has taken.
The changing priorities and fluctuating fortunes of Superstar are mapped out in the instrumentation of “Back At The Beginning”: in the background of the verses there are abstract echoes, whilst the foreground is comprised of stunted, unechoing tones. The synths glisten more on the chorus, in a sound which harks back to the album’s beginnings.
Caroline Rose begins Superstar’s final track, “I Took A Ride,” on a comedown, leaving the relative glamour of air travel behind in favour of a “Greyhound bus”. The introduction is unusual, with distant cicadas behind her voice, until one insect gets too close and is seemingly eaten in mid-air. Rippling synths then appear out of nowhere, dancing up down, before turning into trembling pulses around Rose’s vocals.
Heaven knows heartbreak knows
no bounds, knows no name,
If it takes a lifetime, I will find my true love again,
No way, no how, no one is going to stop me now,
I won’t rest, even if it takes
a thousand years, to find my baby
“I Took A Ride” takes on an almost sinister tone, due to unusually-timed pauses within in the vocals. Rose sounds purposeful and sure once again, and has achieved a ruthlessness by the album’s end. Marching snare drums become stronger, before she summons up a revitalised wave of synths.
The music slows almost to a close, and Superstar ends with a delicate twinkle. It is an instrumental walk away from the camera, a muted yet beautiful conclusion in contrast to the riotous beginning of Superstar.
Across its three acts, Superstar is textured, bold, and human. Though the material ambition at the heart of the album’s narrative seems paradoxically abstract, Caroline Rose is able to keep her record rooted in humour, as well as recognisable feelings of determination, fear, and anxiety. Superstar is an ode to unbridled ambition, but Rose is self-aware enough to know its limits, and is creative enough to make falling short sound fantastic.
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📸 © 2020
an album by Caroline Rose