Cautious Clay has always had a deft affinity for riding the genre line between pop, R&B, and alternative. On his first EP Blood Type,with breakout songs like “Cold War,” Clay displayed his contemporary R&B ability, while with his second EP Table of Context, Clay expressed his more folksy alternative side. On his first full-length album Deadpan Love,we get to hear the smooth crooner create a unique sonic world in the space where those two tones weave around one another. While the love is deadpan like a dry joke thematically on the project, Clay still presents it as a hopeful quest. On the cover, as you see his seemingly melancholy look into the distance, you still feel the yearning behind his slightly upward-looking eyes.
“I’m just another big mistake,” is the resounding cry from the opening track “High Risk Travel.” As he sings it as a proclamation it transitions into an almost goofy weirdly pitched and computerized horn sound as if he is almost chuckling at himself. The vocal tone is as if folksy bubblegum and R&B had a “lustchild” on the track, meaning the birthed composition was something they had to co-parent. This carries throughout the project in various forms where the sentiment ends up being, “Let’s not take this all too seriously somehow we will make it work.” One of the project’s lead singles, which comes in second on the progression, is the epitome of this as it’s titled “Shook,” but is also the most summer-filled bop that exists on the album. Clay is shaken, but when he stirs it up you get a musical tequila sunrise.
There are still moments of more pure darkness that appear like on the tracks “Box of Bones” and “Artificial Irrelevance,” where it seems Clay gets lost in the vortex of his mental processing. These songs operate on the overall album arrangement as the most interlude-like of the sung tracks, which feels significant to the thesis that even things of higher intensity are fleeting. On the flip side, a song like “Wildfire” feels like the glue to the humanity of the body of work. This track is of the sweetest as Clay allows himself to nosedive into his heart chakra and follow the parts of love that evoke butterflies and goosebumps. The hook lyrics, “You’re starting up a wildfire in my heart / Hope it’s what you want / Not just what you do,” ruminate in your subconscious long after you hear them, as you feel hopeful for when you can give into similar moments.
The only slight complaint, if any, is that some of the songs feel like they could last longer with potent bridge sections to feel like more complete thoughts instead of unfinished ones. Though this choice does work with what the intention feels like, a few moments of more rounded single songs would let us into how things play out when they extend beyond the impulse stage. The drift you feel underneath you as you listen to Deadpan Love can carry you into many repeat listens and out into the ocean of your own experiences. Clay has presented his sonic self in as close to a pure form as we’ve heard in 2021.