Julien Chang is a prodigy. The 19-year-old wunderkind from Baltimore plays every single instrument on his debut album, Jules, save for a piano solo on “Of the Past” and a saxophone part on “Dogologue.” The former Baltimore School for the Arts student also recorded the whole thing himself. Jules is an immaculate effort from start to finish and a marvel of self-production that sounds like it was labored over at an expensive studio with a big name producer.
Jules is incredibly hard to pin down. One song may showcase Fleet Foxes-esque harmonies (“Candy Cane Rainbow”) while the next plays like Kevin Parker collaborating with Herbie Hancock (“Dogologue”). A few tracks later, Chang will introduce a King Krule-type lo-fi guitar tone (“Somerville – Demo”) before wrapping it all up with a gorgeous acoustic number. Each subsequent song is shocking when compared to its predecessor: Few albums from this year are able to consistently keep you on your toes across 10 tracks like this release does.
With the spirit of a modern jazz virtuoso à la Quincy-Jones protégé Jacob Collier crossed with some weird combination of The Beach Boys and contemporary bedroom pop along the lines of Still Woozy, Julien Chang channels dozens of influences at once (he references Pink Floyd, Tchaikovsky, ’70s Afro-funk and Gregorian chants in his bio), combining them all to create something only he could make.
It all opens with “Deep Green” where beautiful fingerpicking and piano arpeggios mesh together in a similar way to those on Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell. But after a couple minutes, it explodes into a psych rock song that’d put a smile on Roger Waters’ face before somehow combining the two parts. Then, hazy atmospheric noises transition to lead single “Of The Past,” a track that would be a fan favorite on any Toro y Moi or Neon Indian record. Howling synths eventually give way to a bruising modern jazz piano solo, one of the most impressive piano cameos in indie rock in some time.
And while Chang’s vocals feel distant more often than not, there’s a lot to unpack in his lyrics. “Wake up another day / You’re not hers now / Don’t worry ‘bout it, J. / They’re just words now,” he croons in falsetto on the woozy “Two Voices,” perhaps the slowest song on Jules. He still struggles to get over that breakup on the funky “Memory Loss” when he sings, “My memory is failing me / And I can’t remember why / All those things come back / When I look into her eyes.” But by album closer, “A Day or Two,” Chang finally has his moment of clarity and moves on: “I used to dream about her / Now I’m dreaming again,” later adding, “I couldn’t breathe oh months ago / Now I’m breathing again.”
Chang’s singular vision unites all the loose ends spurred by his ambition. An ’80s keyboard sheen and chillwave instrumentals dominate one song and acoustic guitar the next, but each track works better together than they ever really should.
It typically takes young musicians quite a long time to find their unique sound, but we’re lucky to hear Julien Chang searching for his in real time.