The Honest Lover's Retreat
A Review of Calico by Ryan Beatty
The third studio outing by former Brockhampton affiliate and lover boy Ryan Beatty is nothing short of hair-raising. Calico marks a departure from production-heavy love ballads, letting Ryan fufill his vocal potential and flaunt his unmatched control. I distinctly remember “pirating” the Brockhampton Saturation Demos and hearing this piercing vocal shine on “PEACH.” An inflection and delivery are not all too dissimilar from the one on “BLEACH,” and from there I scoured Genius pages until I found this uncredited angel. "God In Jeans," "Powerslide," and "Pink Floyd" remain core memory tracks and an accessible introduction to pop-music beyond the Billboard top 100. However, while Boy In Jeans and Dreaming of David are substantial works in their own right, they have led to this pinnacle. As Ryan stands unobscured on the cover, he lays bare all he needs to in a succinct 9 tracks.
I laid antsy in bed, waiting for Calico's lead single, “Ribbons” to release at 12 am. I pondered and theorized about everything the single could be. A return to the intoxicatingly dreamy soundscapes and intimate lyrics of Dreaming of David? Further exploration into minimal love ballads à la "Cupid" off Boy In Jeans? I was woefully unprepared for how disarmed I would be. My expectations strayed far from a methodical slow burn abundant in intimacy and free-flowing structure. Instrumentals shift from warm piano chords to cascading guitar plucks, ending on an almost 2-minute orchestral performance brimming with intricacy. Fluttering flutes, a gliding guitar riff, and transcendent vocalizations lead the story to its triumphant, fairytale conclusion. Sections are fluid and entropic but never fail to revolve around and highlight Ryan’s affective output. The instrumentals intertwine, seamlessly blend and constantly shift in a dynamic dance that grants Ryan full control. Yes, sometimes the lack of structure may lead to obtuse and kitschy attempts at quotable lyrics in lieu of a chorus but what is love if not a little clunky and clichéd?
“Driving with the headlights off / ribbons running down your face / cause you’ve never known love like that”
Unobtrusive reverb and echo breathe life into this tender performance. As his voice gently refrains at the end of every line, the suppleness tears me apart. A showcase of growth and an unflinching passion for his craft, Ryan Beatty is finally dominating his domain.
I think of the unskippable run from “Money” to “Pink Floyd” on Boy In Jeans and “Evergreen” to “Shimmer” on Dreaming of David as peaks of contemporary pop but Calico is nothing if not consistent. Every track is a small piece of this cohesive collage, as Ryan weaves in between narratives, teasing and toying with recurring themes. As he proclaims his secularism on “Bruises off the Peach” while looking to an uncertain god to keep him and his lover safe on “Bright Red,” Beatty allows himself to be unsure and contradictory. Imperfection and uncertainty are worn like badges of honour as Ryan learns that love is nothing if not compromise. “Cinnamon Bread” can initially feel like a typical country-inspired romanticization of love but within its exploration of bisexuality, sexual stigmas, etc. it is intrinsically nuanced. It is an encapsulation of love’s unspoken social implications while serving as a heartfelt ode to an unnamed lover. Ryan has never shied away from addressing negative connotations of queer love with bold and often cheeky lyricism but here, he refuses to dignify a response. Content in the ambivalence he lives in, he is in love and there’s nothing hegemonic religious structures, past partners, or an omnipotent all-father can do about it.
The word stunning defines every minute facet of the album’s construction. The chorus on “Andromeda” imparts this exuberant atmosphere carried by the isolation of Ryan’s vocals. The swelling strings and uncompromising keys compound a chorus that thrives within the confines of comparatively sparse verses. The sheer momentum created within individual sections needs to be studied as masterclasses in pop excellence. Intertwining background vocals and harmonies quickly instill grandeur and tension on the repeating bridge of “Bruises off the Peach,” the mixing goes to incredible lengths, enhancing this showcase of vocal prowess. The concluding track "Little Faith," while the most predictable with its bare rustic guitar chords and verse-chorus structure, still manages to extract a gripping plea from Ryan. The final renditions of the chorus ask, "What's it gonna take? What's it gonna take?" as his voice harmonizes in a choir-esque delivery, it descends like an angel from heaven. Subsequently, he begs his mother to "have a little faith" in a repeated delivery that sympathizes with the exact faith that ostracized him in the first place. He willfully chooses to stay by his mother's side despite her religious ambivalence, performative support, and blissful ignorance toward his identity. Ryan perseveres and smiles through it all, amplifying all that is left unspoken.
To label this album a stripped-back pop album would be a criminal disservice. It indulges when it pleases and is mature enough to take extensive strides. The album often takes steps back from the experimental vocal manipulation and genre blends of Dreaming of David, but recovers in its confidence, vulnerability, and grandeur. Calico burns bright, and within every sentence, I resisted the temptation to say I melted after every song. It rarely oversteps its welcome or dips into the unnecessary, Ryan feels more assured than ever in feeding us this small world he's carefully constructed. Pop singer-songwriters with folk influences may be becoming overplayed and on their way out, but not before Ryan has anything to say about it.
Calico, as of May 2nd, is currently my 5th favourite album of 2023 behind Lana Del Rey’s Did You Know There's A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd.
Favourite Tracks: Ribbons, Bruises off the Peach, Cinnamon Bread, Andromeda, Bright Red, Multiple Endings, and Little Faith