It was Francis Lyons’ therapist who suggested his dreams might have something to say that he didn’t. Not unprecedented psychological phenomena, but a breakthrough in his musical project, Ylayali. After a blur of three albums in three years, as well as some heavy self-reflection, the well felt dry. So for his new album Separation, Lyons—a Philadelphia artist who plays drums in bands like 2nd Grade and Free Cake for Every Creature—suspends himself in a dream state. The entire album is laid out as an interaction with a character from this dream, a nameless man who acts as a spiritual guide of sorts, one that vacillates between the sinister and the paternal. It’s an exercise that works well for Lyons, allowing him to nudge the surrealism and experimentalism that marks his music into a more purposeful, potent framework.
The album begins in media res, a jarring choice that sets the mood for the rest of the project’s heady, winding odyssey, and Lyons’ larger goal of melding musical storytelling with his own private introspection. The saga opens with “Green Walls,” in a truck driving through cornfields, the man at the wheel and the narrator sitting shotgun. It’s as if our narrator is an abductee, suddenly waking up in unfamiliar surroundings. To orient himself, he focuses mostly on the view. On the next track, “Burnt Axiom,” the narrator’s attention turns to the nameless man. “Sorta has my father’s eyes,” he observes. “He knows my needs, he sees them all well before me.” Neither of these things are comforting; his gut is turning.
There is something distinctly oneiric about the music itself, in part due to Lyons’ unorthodox yet compelling sense of melody, which is one of the album’s highlights. The melodies here strike a balance between the cerebral and the playful, and for the most part, they don’t shift over the course of entire songs. Everything is built around repetition: Synths, basslines, and tambourine jangles are bedrocks for songs from start to finish. All of these maneuvers produce a feeling of hypnosis, trance, and an eerie sense that we’re moving but not going anywhere. Instruments—guitars, bass, drums, synths, sometimes violins and harps—are vivid and sharp, but vocals are distorted and buried, like they’re penetrating through layers of sleep. These choices are immersive and dynamic, and they allow the narrator’s fuzzy point of view to come into fuller focus.
There’s a narrative to this album the way there is one to a dream—it’s hazy and erratic, but it makes perfect sense while you’re in it. Lyons’ omission of concrete information builds its own meaningful internal world, grounded in the genuine poignancy of the music. On “Nobody Knows,” the man offers the narrator advice, though to us it’s unintelligible; on “Not Yer Spade,” he dips, having imparted the knowledge he needed to, and the narrator is left with the aftermath on “He Needs Me,” a gentle song featuring violin and harp, as the narrator reflects on being abandoned. We barely understand anything about the man or his relationship to the narrator at this point, and neither, it seems, does the narrator himself. But the whole album is about the process of learning a lesson, but not the lesson itself. This is what really makes a mark on a person, it suggests. It also removes any firm barrier between the narrator’s experience and the listener’s, leaving you with the feeling that the journey was your own, though you didn’t quite hit the end of it yet.
As the album progresses, Lyons’ lyrics unravel into opacity and absurdity; the earlier songs are more or less straightforward narrative, while the closer “Air” is just a list of disconnected phrases (“hot box, terranaut, knuckleball, twisting top”). Instead of a resolution, it offers gradual fragmentation, a twist in the album’s construction that again evokes the path of a dream. The looser the imagery becomes, the more affecting it is. There’s beauty in untethering to reality: The words resemble unmolded clay, or stems not yet ripe, their meaning still only potential.
The way Lyons sketches his characters, leaving their presence full of abstractions and contradictions that only heighten them, reveals him as an impressive storyteller. With this approach, his idiosyncratic voice as a lyricist and musician shines. Mostly, Separation succeeds in how it replicates the sensation of a dream; when it’s over, you feel affected for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on. If Lyons is never done wrestling with his own subconscious, he’s at least conquered the creative challenge that he needed.