It's hard to blame music writers for so frequently using "Twin Shadow" and "the 1980s" in the same sentence. In the roughly one year since George Lewis Jr.'s solo project turned four-piece caught the attention of critics, Twin Shadow has been regularly compared to artists associated with the era of Ronald Reagan, Nintendo, and brooding comic books. Pick your distinctively coiffed poison — the Smiths, the Cure, Hall & Oates, Duran Duran, Billy Idol — and chances are some scribe has already used it as a reference point.
Those tags may seem clichéd, but they're deserved. Last year's debut album, Forget, produced by Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor, sports all the key traits of what's popularly considered "'80s music" (basically New Wave pop): It is never too jagged around the edges, cushioning guitar hooks with slinking synths and Taylor's signature dreamy production quality. And it balances glossy melodies with hints of rawness, tiptoeing toward its emotional revelations before reeling back into polished pop.
Lewis' persona also does little to dissuade these comparisons. The Dominican Republic-born, Florida-raised Brooklynite vocalizes like New Wave's most identifiable voices, examining sundry relationship failings and inner conflicts in a restrained croon. The leisurely airiness of Lewis' voice is key to this music: His falsetto is so soft you can rest your head on it when you feel put-upon by the world. Let's not ignore the gent's fashion sense either, as he made it to Time Out's 2010 list of the best-dressed New Yorkers with a style he has described as "James Dean in Bollywood in the late '80s." Finally, there are his facial expressions. On the cover of Forget and in various publicity images, Lewis holds a thoughtful, quasisullen gaze as though he is contemplating something vast and wouldn't mind you knowing so. He looks like a guy who would get along swimmingly with Robert Smith and Morrissey.
Of course, Lewis has heard about his '80s-ness before, and he is occasionally annoyed by the comparisons. "I never thought of the record as very '80s until people started telling me [what] it sounded like," he says. "One of the first comments is, 'It sounds like Depeche Mode.' I don't think it sounds like Depeche Mode at all, and I love Depeche Mode." Yet what makes the reception to Twin Shadow interesting is that the '80s connections are usually doled out between heaps of praise. And they are deserved: At his most potent, Lewis can deliver heart-wrenching lyrical metaphors and gauzy instrumentation to go with them.
Twin Shadow hasn't been Lewis' only sound. At a younger age, he played in an unruly punk/funk trio. He likens another former project to John Lennon's solo work; his explanation brings up Otis Redding, too. Yet none of these projects held the same allure as Twin Shadow. "I never felt like any of that music prior was my own," he says. "To me, it hasn't been like, 'Let me do the genre switch.' It was more like I was walking into any musical situation I could get my hands on to try to master that particular thing. I don't feel like I've stuck with something now. I feel more like I've progressed to something."
Wrapped into some of the '80s invocations is a claim that is tougher to analyze: that Twin Shadow is here for the sake of nostalgia. That Lewis' emotional explorations purposely recall the world-crashing-down sentimentality of a John Hughes film. Of course, the songwriter bristles at this. "There are people out there who try to purposely make you feel like you're sitting in Dirty Dancing. That's not what I think I do," he says. Irony isn't a factor, either; Lewis dislikes it. Instead, he considers himself a storyteller, priding himself on lyrical honesty, even if he can't precisely define what makes his songs honest. Some truths may lurk in choruses like "Everything I touch turns to gold/Castles in the snow" and "When we're dancing/ lease leave us alone," but it's hard for outsiders to know for sure. Lewis' melancholia can certainly be impenetrable — another common trait of much '80s pop-rock.
These Reagan-era similarities may be uncanny, but Lewis says they were unintended. He doesn't plan on changing things by getting rid of them, no matter what the music writers say. "My insecurities may lead me to something like that, but then I'm being dishonest with myself," he says."I hope that I don't give a fuck and just do whatever the hell I want anyway."