A windows-down car ride through the desert. Graceful surfers shredding blue swells. A suburban road lit only by streetlamps. The big round sun, shimmering over a distant horizon. These are just a few of the images conjured by Brothertiger, the stunning new album from the Brooklyn-based electronic artist of the same name.
Collecting a handful of singles released over the past year and a half, plus several unheard tracks, the album sees John Jagos, a.k.a. Brothertiger, moving through his chillwave roots and into the refined glitz of sophisti-pop, a UK-born microgenre that owes its ’80s and ’90s heyday to key releases by groups like Prefab Sprout and Scritti Politti. Brothertiger’s take on the style is pure escapism — immaculately engineered, retro-leaning songs for romantic vagabonds and urbane daydreamers alike. It might be the most impressive set of songs that Jagos has ever made.
Jagos has released four full-lengths under the Brotheriger alias, a figure that doesn’t even account for multiple EPs, a Tears for Fears cover album, or his four-volume series of livestreamed improvisations called Fundamentals. Still, Jagos decided to give his newest album the self-titled treatment, a move typically reserved for an artist’s debut project. After spending time with the record’s maximalist soundscapes, and after hearing Jagos discuss the deeply personal creativity that fueled the production, it’s easy to understand his thinking: the Brothertiger LP is a testament to Jagos’ technical gifts, a polished culmination of his ambitious experiments and nostalgic obsessions. But it’s also an introduction to a playful new era for a songwriter whose synthpop has often skewed broody and introspective.
Like a lot of artistic city-dwellers, Jagos spent the early days of the pandemic in a restless state. That changed after he scoured eBay for vintage gear, impulsively snagging some sophisti-pop-era synths and samplers manufactured by a now-defunct company called Ensoniq. Armed with a wacky new vocabulary of sounds, Jagos wrote “Dancer on the Water,” an elegant, up-tempo coastal fantasy with lustrous synths and pan flute flourishes. When he released the track as a one-off in spring 2021, new fans and longtime listeners were smitten by its unselfconscious optimism, by its throwback, feel-good energy. “I was like, I want to make music like this for a while and see what happens,” Jagos explains.
What “happened” was a kind of magic: new songs spilled out of him with an unexpected ease. Jagos wrote the album’s fist-pumping centerpiece, “Heaven,” about the spiritual burnout he experienced after growing up in the Catholic Church. First-half highlight “Be True” pairs encouraging lyrics about self-sufficiency with sappy piano chords and chintzy synth arpeggios. If the hooks weren’t so crisp, or if Jagos didn’t sound so convincing, this mode might scan as melodramatic. In his hands, it’s legitimately moving. “I felt more connected to my songwriting than I’ve ever felt before,” he remembers. That self-synchronicity was contagious, leading to productive sessions with unexpected collaborators, including math rock guitarist Yvette Young (Covet) and metalcore icon Spencer Chamberlain (Underoath), both of whom Jagos connected with via Instagram. Young joins Brothertiger for a euphoric cover of a little-known 1987 track by British siblings Sophie & Peter
Johnston, while Chamberlain contributes uncharacteristically subdued vocals to the midtempo, Tears for Fears-esque “Yesterdays.”
Jagos and his co-producer Jon Markson (Drug Church, Cathedral Bells, Can’t Swim) took the minutiae of production extremely seriously, a practice that’s audible across Brothertiger’s meticulous arrangements; every hi-hat and pitch-warped sample feels deliberate and essential. “I’m really proud of the level of detail,” Jagos says. “There’s a lot of ear candy everywhere.” But Jagos was also conscious about leaving space for kitsch and absurdity, often embracing the inherent cheesiness of his slick influences: the verse rhythm of “Summer Wave 98,” for example, recalls the sing-spoken schmaltz of millenium mega-hits by Vitamin C and LFO. This resolution to not take himself “too seriously” also manifests in Brothertiger’s lyrics. Been livin’ like I’ve already won / Do I look fancy to you? / Pretending I’m the number one, he croons on opener “Tangerine,” a track that includes a steamy synth-guitar solo fit for a power ballad, the kind of song you might hear in the credits of a big ’80s blockbuster.
“Trying to be less serious about the music business is a big theme,” Jagos explains. “I’m not trying to conform to the specific ideals the algorithm machine wants me to be a part of; I’m just trying to make music that sounds good.” Listening to the room-filling songs on Brothertiger, it feels safe to say that he succeeded.