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Whitney have been carefully stretching their falsetto-forward soft rock to its emotional and textural limits since their debut album Light Upon the Lake floated in on a gentle breeze six years ago. Its beautifully grainy follow-up, Forever Turned Around, was a deeply melancholy affair, Julien Ehrlich’s voice occasionally so thin when he lingered on words like “lonely” that it sounded like he might be on the verge of tears. Even their covers album, Candid, released in that first pandemic summer, seemed ill at ease with itself at points, as though covering “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was too easy a serotonin rush. Joy that simple would only be worthwhile if Ehrlich also had an existential crisis while trying to rework David Byrne’s theatrical delivery on “Strange Overtones.” Or, you know, literally covering Kelela. All that effort to fit the outside world into their own. It’s hard work, sounding serene.
In that context “Real Love,” the first single from their forthcoming third LP Spark, makes it seem like Whitney tried so hard to bend their sound into new shapes that eventually it just snapped. Gone are most of the trappings of early Whitney, the wistful nostalgia and delicate slide guitars. Instead, there’s a compressed drum loop and metronomic bass groove, computerized strings in place of the horns, Ehrlich’s voice crisp and clear at the top of the mix. It is unabashed pop music, almost playfully arranged, shiny and clean-edged. And for all that this is a breakup song, Ehrlich doesn’t linger on the loneliness; in fact, he ends up repeating the word “love” over and over again. They’re a long way from the crackle of their first two albums, but “Real Love” is bold and unexpected enough to suggest it’ll be worth following Whitney into the unknown.