Figurine is a long distance love affair, comprised of James Tamborello, better known as Dntel, or the guy from The Postal Service who who isn’t Ben Gibbard, and two faraway friends, Meredith and David. The three make their homes in Los Angeles, Cambridge and San Francisco, respectively, and The Heartfelt was pieced together of sound files sent to each other via the internet, so it’s especially apt that in listening to The Heartfelt, it’s the distances one feels first.
“International Space Station” sets the mood with two lovers looking back on the earth after two years in space, missing the blues and greens, preparing to return “from up so high, beyond the moon,” and carries on with a cheerful little number — all little bleeps and trills, whirrs and little puffs of air — called “IMpossible”, which includes the brilliant lines of lyric “IM me if you can, I am about to give up hope,” telling of a relationship gone sour over the ether of the internet.
The Heartfelt goes on to a call-and-response on “Rewind,” with James wanting to turn a relationship back to better days, while Meredith replies that perhaps he should fast-forward to how miserable his life would be without her; and thence to my personal favorite, “Stranger”, where James and Meredith swap vocals and perspectives between a boy who’s fallen in love with a girl he’s never met and watches from afar (“It’s true you might be a stranger, but you’re not that strange to me”), and the girl who wants him to keep him in the distance (“To you I know I’m a stranger, and that’s the way I want it to be”).
There are pleasing little instumentals, a song about a break-up caused by the fact that the boy plays guitar instead of synthesizer, and the title track “Heartfelt”, where Meredith asks “Do you have a heart? You seem so artificial,” and declares that “love is just a noun, just and empty sound, unless it’s heartfelt.”
What’s nicest about The Heartfelt is the way the cool, electronic sensibility meets with warmth and humanity: the contradiction of space, distance and generalized 21st Century malaise, with a cozy intimacy, basic human failings and love. It’s the way all the little electronic blips and beeps feel sort of unintuitively warm and human while reminding you of something cold and dehumanizing. It’s a fusion of techno-pop and warm ambience, with frail, deadpan vocals, and conversational lyrics about relationships that aren’t failing dramatically so much as not really going well, along with a palpable sense of longing for unmediated connection.
There’s a little touch of Radiohead’s dystopian sensibility, here, though with an almost voluptuous enjoyment of cold surfaces and distances. It’s got the smooth electronic prettiness of a band like Mùm, or Her Space Holiday, combined with a little dash of Stereolab’s more analog vibe, and early 80’s synthpop, along the lines of The Human League, Pet Shop Boys, or Depeche Mode.
The Heartfelt is un-intrusive and easy to listen to, which gives it a sense of being lightweight and innocuous, and in truth, it’s not the kind of thing that digs it’s way under your skin with any violence or immediacy; but it’s rich and quietly evocative. It’s more the kind of thing you end up listening to again and again, and every time you do, the poetry of it feels a little stronger.
It’s a lovely record.