Through heartache, rejection, workplace harassment and pervasive disillusionment, Alex Lilly’s songs keep their cool on her debut album, “2% Milk.” Her voice is supple and relaxed; she often sounds like a smile is tugging at the corners of her mouth. And she brings a wry, analytical skepticism even to matters of the heart. In “Boomerang,” about giving an ex another chance, she sings, “I’ve tried to find someone new/Believe me though it’s hard to, they’re all worse than you.”
Lilly, who is based in Los Angeles, has been writing songs while working as a keyboardist and backup singer on tour with Beck, Lorde and others, including a longtime spot in the suavely devious pop band the Bird and the Bee; “2% Milk” arrives on the label founded by Inara George, who leads the Bird and the Bee with the producer Greg Kurstin. And like the Bird and the Bee, Lilly delivers structural and emotional complexity with deceptive nonchalance.”
Lilly’s songs are full of musicianly gamesmanship. They’re synth-pop built around a decidedly human protagonist; they use hopscotching melody lines, shifty meters, subtly intricate counterpoint and spongy, unconventional synthesizer tones. But Lilly isn’t just showing off. Her convolutions also tell stories.
In “Distracting Me,” she breaks away from workaholic concentration to realize, gratefully, “I love it when you are distracting me.” For that one line, she adds a beat, cheerfully disrupting her 4/4 routine. The album’s title song, with some lyrics by the poet Jacqueline Suskin, treats “2% Milk” as a symbol of a diminished life. “All that was rich/All that was whole/Used to be mine,” Lilly sings in an angular melody, while the beat lurches and cello-like countermelodies tug her further into malaise. “Cold Snap” turns post-breakup despair into an almost perverse triumph. The chords in the verses descend from undulating serenity into dissonance, but then the chorus swells as it proclaims, “Spring has come so I’m told/But I’ve become permanently cold.”
“Pornographic Mind” — about a co-worker who’s all too eager to misread friendly conversation — observes, “There’s a delicate balance between work and play.” It begins with Lilly repeating “porno-pornographic” in a cascade of vocal harmonies suggesting Philip Glass, at once pretty and mathematical. That leads to a verse with melting synthesizer chords and a fidgety bass line: a sonic equivalent of the murky area between chatting and creepiness. Eventually, she decides, “All I know is, I don’t need this,” and, more luckily than some women, she makes her escape.
Lilly is proud to overthink things. She stress-tests a relationship in “Hypothetical,” positing, “Let’s say we broke up today” and later explaining, “I like a love that doubts itself” and “I trust the heart that’s clinical.” Meanwhile, however, the underlying beat hints at girl-group romance. And subtly but surely throughout the album, Lilly makes clear that cool doesn’t mean cold. She’s thinking and composing her way through disappointment, loneliness and uncertainty. In the stately, shimmery closing song, “Firefly,” she mourns a romance that didn’t happen: “Almost a miracle, but it all came undone.” The smile in her voice isn’t oblivious or naïve; it’s a matter of will.