Engaging with the music of Sweet Trip is a very personal thing. That’s true for all music–the thesis of this very blog is that the listener forms their own story when listening to a song based on their own experiences–but it’s especially true with Sweet Trip. A Sweet Trip song is never just happy or sad: even their most upbeat moments have a wistful undercurrent, and even their most melancholy songs have a certain sense of wry serenity. This ambiguity extends to their albums: Velocity : Design : Comfort celebrates the possibilities of the future while hinting towards a deeper alienation, while You Will Never Know Why contains devastating ballads and peppy Stereolab-esque pop. Different people with different imaginations will hear the same music and come away with different conclusions.
As such, my ten favorite Sweet Trip songs will look very different from someone else’s. I don’t mean to position myself as an authority–Roby Burgos himself is reluctant to declare himself an authority on his own music, not wanting to override what fans might think–but since they released a new album and I had the immense privilege of interviewing Burgos, I want to share ten songs that I think are essential to understanding the unique beauty of this band. As ranking these songs would be like choosing a favorite puppy from a litter, they’ll be listed in chronological order.
“Fish” (from Halica: Bliss Out v.11): It’s not quite accurate to say that Sweet Trip arrived fully formed. Their debut album, Halica, had elements of both ambient techno and shoegaze, but they didn’t always synthesize the two as neatly as they would in the future. Still, they had blissful soundscapes down pat, and the album’s opening track, “Fish,” still stands among their best. Clouds of synth and guitar drift across playful, clattering drums, while Valerie Cooper’s voice lilts and echoes like a mysterious spirit singing as she bathes in the depths of a cave. Even as it gets noisier towards the end, “Fish” still feels like a dream, a burst of optimism and possibility.
“Dsco” (from Velocity : Design: Comfort): Considered by many Sweet Trip fans to be their best work (it’s ranked the highest on Rateyourmusic, the music nerd haven where I cut my teeth writing amateur reviews), Velocity : Design : Comfort was where Sweet Trip truly came into their own. On Halica, the electronic and rock elements were starting a tentative courtship; here, they’re happily married, and the result brims with imagination and joy. “Dsco” is VDC at its most optimistic, with vibrant pop hooks and crunchy rock candy guitars suggesting a glorious futuristic playground: it sounds like a utopian soda commercial in the best possible way. But while the lyrics invite us to “spread the towels and bring out the lotion” and “synchronize your time in motion,” the pleasure is tempered by the need to escape from something: “run away to the sun, to the comfort.”
“Velocity” (from Velocity: Design: Comfort): Sweet Trip’s brilliance comes in part from their musical versatility. They’ve always delighted in genre fusion, but you get the sense that they could have been a pure dream pop band or a pure ambient techno outfit and been just as excellent either way. Case in point: “Velocity,” a straight-ahead IDM suite that stands tall alongside the Autechres and Venetian Snares of the world. While some IDM gets too caught up in its own cleverness, “Velocity” is endlessly evocative: its looping synth haze and sputtering drum crunches summons a world of blue holograms and jagged chrome skylines. Everything about it is pure cool, down to a distorted lounge-y piano put in the mix towards the end, but Cooper’s periodic vocals hint at a desperation and a loneliness behind all this opportunity.
“Chocolate Matter” (from Velocity : Design: Comfort): There’s something great about a band that knows exactly what its listeners want. Take “Chocolate Matter,” which comes towards the end of VDC and provides a dizzying rush of catharsis. It starts out as a catchy, lilting shoegaze song, not far off from You Made Me Realise-era My Bloody Valentine. Then, an absolutely thunderous guitar riff that sweeps in out of nowhere, sticking around just long enough to get you addicted before disappearing for a buzzing synth solo and another verse. “This is all great, of course,” you catch yourself thinking, “but I really hope that huge guitar riff comes back.” And then it does! And it repeats over and over again until the end of the song, growing louder and more ecstatic until it feels like your headphones might break! And it’s awesome!
“Acting” (from You Will Never Know Why): Musically, You Will Never Know Why is a lovely moonlit shimmer of an album, forgoing the noisier shoegaze and IDM parts of Sweet Trip’s sound for pure dream pop bliss. Lyrically, however, it gets dark, going into thorny, personal territory. “Acting,” an early highlight, gets a lot of mileage out of that juxtaposition. It’s a long, sprawling song, with a psychedelic outro left over from the VDC sessions, and the rich sounds make the lyrics dig their claws in deeper. “Don’t speak of golden dreams,” Burgos sings over a fast-paced, jazz-inflected section. “You once had a chance to make things right.” The “acting” described in the title refers to “acting on regrets,” but when Burgos coos “so sad, so sad, so hopeless,” the cruel joke of the title’s second meaning comes in. It’s the most luscious world’s-smallest-violin ever recorded.
“Milk” (from You Will Never Know Why): While “Acting” was acidic and bitter, “Milk” is just devastatingly sad. With its jangly acoustic guitar and yawning pedal steel, “Milk” sounds a little like Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” but while that song is an expression of romantic intimacy, “Milk” is about the loneliness of drifting apart. According to Burgos, “Milk” is about an insomniac watching their lover sleep, jealous of their peaceful rest. But in the song’s bittersweet tone, it’s clear that the divide is deeper and more complicated than that. “You will drift away/and I won’t mind,” Cooper sighs, and she means it. “Don’t you drift away,” she pleads afterwards, and she means that, too.
“Your World Is Eternally Complete” (from You Will Never Know Why): One of the album’s most upbeat offerings, “Eternally Complete” has plenty of darkness in its lyrics, but this time the darkness is being pierced by the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a fast-paced pep talk of a song, with Cooper’s sweet, bell-like voice encouraging you to “carry yourself through the frozen desert” and “empty your thoughts into the well of pressure.” It’s a lot to ask, but it’s a testament to Sweet Trip’s empathy that it feels possible: it really does feel like they’re in your corner, and if they think you can carry yourself through the frozen desert, then, hey, why not give it a shot?
“Things to Ponder While Falling” (from You Will Never Know Why Outtakes): When “Things to Ponder While Falling” was posted to Soundcloud in 2015, the description said that it was “probably the last Sweet Trip song ever.” Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case, but if it really was the last we’d hear of them it would have been a wonderful coda. The first half of “Things to Ponder While Falling” is a gentle, almost halting lullaby, with Burgos and Cooper singing from the point of view of an outcast (or just an agoraphobe) hiding in their home from the “wounds of coyness and shame.” It’s not a happy song, but there’s a sense of peaceful resignation: if you’re falling, you may as well close your eyes and drift off before you hit the ground. Then, right when you think there’s nowhere else to go, a surge of guitar kicks in, and you get your second wind along with the band.
“Chapters” (from A Tiny House, In Secret Speeches, Polar Equals): When any band returns after twelve years, it’s natural to wonder what might have changed in their sound and what new approach they might take. In the case of Sweet Trip, they didn’t radically alter their sound for A Tiny House, In Secret Speeches, Polar Equals, but they did take everything they had done over their discography and put it all together into one lush, swooning package. Everyone who likes Sweet Trip will find something to like on this album, and “Chapters” may end up one of the best-liked songs of all: starting with a glitchy acoustic strum that recalls the warped warmth of Fennesz’ Endless Summer, it becomes a psychedelic swirl of guitar, synth, and voice, achingly tender and romantic. “Hand in hand, electrified/I will love you,” Burgos and Cooper promise, and the sentiment is earned.
“Snow Purple Treasures” (from A Tiny House, In Secret Speeches, Polar Equals): There’s nothing tiny about A Tiny House. Although it’s not the longest album Sweet Trip’s ever made (VDC beats it by about four minutes), it’s definitely the most ambitious, aiming for transcendent romantic bliss at every turn. In the wrong hands, it could be exhausting, but with songs like “Snow Purple Treasures,” who could complain? Not unlike “Chapters,” it opens with a sparse acoustic strum and delicate vocals before expanding into the stratosphere, but there’s always something twilit and elegant to its sound. In short, it sounds like its title (the best Cocteau Twins song title Cocteau Twins never came up with.)
“Polar Equals” (from A Tiny House, In Secret Speeches, Polar Equals): If you wanted to narrow Sweet Trip’s entire discography down to one song, it might be “Polar Equals.” Sure, it lacks the gorgeous vocals that are essential to the band’s excellence, but it contains just about everything else: dreamy peals of guitar, brilliant blossoms of psychedelia, even a return to the blippy IDM of VDC. And to finish it all off, there’s a beautiful outro that shimmers and glimmers and darkens like black butterfly wings. It’s a perfect reminder of what Sweet Trip is capable of, and it’s when it finally sunk in that one of my favorite bands was back.