On Shellfish, the second track off of Ourselves the Elves’ debut album “Self Is Universe,” lead singer Alyana Cabral tries to pry open a reticent lover. The silence has become too much to handle — she needs a sign, a signal, a status report on their relationship. “This is the part where we pretend things are okay / We always just remove the clothes of yesterday,” she murmurs to herself as she slumps through the motions. On the chorus, she wonders aloud: “How does the unspoken voice in your head sound like / it’s what I’m deprived of.” Her anxiety reaches its climax as the central riff, so dependable up until this point, gives way to a windblown slush of guitars. And then suddenly, miraculously, the knot that’s been coiling in her stomach undoes itself: “I have realized in the end / That all the words that we haven’t said… only make us stronger.”
It’s a resolution that corresponds with the album’s core thesis, the belief that the world we carry within us is as valid and complex as the world we happen to share with one another. A solipsistic notion for sure — one that naturally runs the risk of swallowing itself. And so it’s a triumph that, while the record is tight and cohesive, it manages to hit more notes than it’s expected to; a vast mural created with a defined color palette.
“Self Is Universe” is just as likely to make grand sweeping statements as it is to be bratty, angsty, and fun. Strikingly, it also distills a profuse amount of emotion; the gentle, cathartic sort that embraces you fully.
One could say that “Self is Universe” has been gestating for nearly a decade — Ourselves the Elves was formed in 2011, and is currently composed of Alyana, bassist Paula Castillo, drummer Ponch Salvador, and guitarist Akira Medina. Despite the years of exposure however, it’s still a bit surprising how much the four-piece lineup has come into its own since its last EP in 2015. Everything on this album, meticulously produced by Kean Reformado, sounds fully-realized, deliberate, polished.
But this sonic maturity, thankfully, doesn’t come chain-linked to a rigid self-image. “Self Is Universe” is just as likely to make grand sweeping statements as it is to be bratty, angsty, and fun. Strikingly, it also distills a profuse amount of emotion; the gentle, cathartic sort that embraces you fully.
The opener, Sariling Dwende / Inner Faerie, announces itself with the urgency of a lap through the desert, spiraling with psychedelic guitars and an uncharacteristically crisp vocal track. It deceptively fades out at the three-minute mark, only to come roaring back to life with renewed energy, finishing clean. An ode to the origins of the self, it’s inspired in large part by filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik, who defines the sariling dwende as the sum of one’s cultural influences: “[I]t’s like an entity within you that frames the world in a unique way. It starts with: Where are you from? Who are your parents? Who are your first teachers? Did you grow up by the sea? Did you grow up by the mountains? […] the way you interpret any event in the world will all be affected by your sariling dwende.” The song, with its sweeping production, plays out like a knowing dare: you think you know us? Think again.
Proceeding tracks are engulfed in a haze of mid-fi garage rock, reminiscent of Best Coast or the Beach Fossils. More aligned with the Elves we do know, albeit elevated, with an increased attention to detail. As a body of work, each song flows into the next with purpose. Even the previously released tracks seem to enter a new lifespan.
There’s something cinematic about Ourselves the Elves, not in the contrived sense of the word, but in the disarming way they seem to understand human experiences, no matter how small or insignificant they may appear.
Okay Okay I’m Wrong I’m Sorry, for instance, sounds more at home within the context of this album than it does in Petersen Vargas’ nostalgic coming-of-age drama 2 Cool 2 Be 4Gotten. Indeed, “Self Is Universe” could very well be the soundtrack to its own film — there’s something cinematic about Ourselves the Elves, not in the contrived sense of the word, but in the disarming way they seem to understand human experiences, no matter how small or insignificant they may appear.
Alyana has never sounded better than on this album, her doubled vocals shifting between the intimate and the anthemic. The melodies are so listenable, so infectious — and at the record’s best, so hypnotic.
There’s one such instance on D.I.C.K. (Daddy Issues Cursed Kids). It’s pure mid-afternoon languor, with a playfully coy bassline and guitars coated in syrup. As the song dips into an outro, a chorus of chirp sounds flutter around the stereo channels, like a swarm of metallic insects. Alyana’s vocals echo hauntingly, a summer delirium in slow motion.
Some of the album’s most tender moments come at the end, on gorgeous tracks like Sweet Sally and Force Field. “Fall out of place / you lose your head in space,” Alyana chants on Sally as the music swells steadily. On the latter track, soft, sweet acoustic guitars draw the album to a perfect close. The ensuing silence might make you want to shed a tear, but there’s a sense of calm “Self Is Universe” leaves in its wake, and after collecting yourself, you feel the small relief of a knot coming loose.