If you are publicity-shy then releasing an album without fanfare on Christmas Day seems a good way of slipping under the radar. Well, Josh Scott may not like me to blow his trumpet, but his second release under the pseudonym Aero Flynn, Madeline, is a Secret Santa present worth hanging onto long after the Christmas tree has been packed away.
Little is known about Josh. Interviews with friends suggest that it could be partly due to mental health issues or an auto-immune disease rather than some Banksy or Burial wish for anonymity. Whatever the truth, his scant back catalogue over the last two decades still marks him out as a singular talent.
Seen as a cult hero on the Wisconsin scene, he led the influential Amateur Love in the early 00s before disbanding the group to move to Chicago, while the remaining members joined Justin Vernon’s band Deyarmond Edison. As Justin aka Bon Iver became famous, he re-released Amateur Love’s gorgeous debut on his own label, trying to encourage his friend/mentor to record new music again. Josh rewarded that trust with his 2015 debut under the Aero Flynn moniker; it was a melting pot of crepuscular indie, In Rainbows-era Radiohead funk, African percussion, gated reverb, dub effects and loose jazz arrangements.
Five years later he follows that up with Madeline, which although only clocking in at 8 tracks over 21 minutes, is more emotionally brutal than it’s predecessor, but no less complex. Produced and co-written with Bon Iver, the music shares Justin’s penchant for wintery atmospherics, although Josh leans more towards soul influences than folk. Take the opener “Inlet” which unwinds like a coda to a Hot Chip slow-jam, with pensive minor-key synth and squealing guitars all leading to a heavenly climax, or the picked strings of “Holy Water” which conflate Soul’s favourite two subjects—the spiritual and the sensual—with Josh’s swooning voice.
For all the Wisconsin legends—former Amateur Love member Brad Cook also features—in the background, Madeline still sounds like a solo effort: the music is sinewy, twitchy and intricate, like a perpetually moving AM dial losing the signal, and then finding it again. On “Apogee”, shrill snippets of Josh’s voice delicately overlap each other, until he starts harmonising with his own distorted echo. While on “Find Me Love”, Josh audaciously varies the pitch of his voice from angelic to stoned half-speed to differentiate it. Rather than becoming unintentionally comic, each effect is like multiple personas trying the word “love” on for size to see how it fits.
A tense fragility underscores everything. “Two Step” evokes the terror of a 3am panic attack with murmuring instruments and faraway screeches; Josh’s plea for understanding—“when I wake up I’m lost”—seems tailor-made for these troubled times. Similar anxieties bleed into the lyrics and structure of “Make It With Mine” which initially plays it as straight modern R&B with Josh trying to save himself from a nightmare/depressive state before the track dissipates into ambient bass drops, then slowly rebuilds—like a fractured psyche piecing itself back together after a meltdown.
Originally released as a stand-alone single in 2017, “You Care” is a welcome bit of anthemic synth-pop with a heart-pounding melody providing a neat counterpoint for Josh’s understated lyrics; it’s a beautiful portrait of how stilted communication can be when one partner is an extrovert and the other an introvert.
Throughout Madeline, Josh is a tease of a songwriter, staying the right side of enigmatic without being obtuse. “Driftless” has all the grace of a poem, the tantalising glimpses of this free spirit— “You wanna play god. You dress up in the fog…called it your energy”—are made more evocative by the weightless voices simmering underneath.
Madeline is a complex but fragile concoction that keeps you on tenterhooks for all it’s 21 minutes, raising the emotional stakes with each song. With releases of this calibre, Josh Scott will hopefully be seen as more than a footnote to Bon Iver’s success. That said, given the anxieties that permeate this album, perhaps he is happy with the level of fame he already has. So maybe only recommend this album to your closest friends. Think of it as a late Secret Santa present.