Cindy Lee’s ‘Diamond Jubilee’ Is A Gift Worth Savoring

Sometimes listening to music is an attempt to return to the source of a feeling. For a while now, I’ve been convinced of the notion that you only ever experience any given feeling once. Each is distinct, specific to the time, place, and state of mind in which you have it and while you may be varying degrees of, say, disappointed or wistful or satisfied countless times in your life, these feelings come as similar but discrete sensory encounters. Hence the journey to the source, a wading through past selves to hopefully arrive at that feeling preserved. 

I had never heard of Cindy Lee, Canadian musician Patrick Flegel’s drag pop project, before their newest album Diamond Jubilee was released in late March, but I recognized their sound and I recognized the feeling of hearing it: many a solitary night before I’d left New York, not lonely, but alone, letting the radio or a record play softly in the background, mind drifting from one thought and mood to the next, not quite listening but not checked out, the overwhelming sense that I was safe for the moment but not forever. 

Diamond Jubilee is a double-album of 32 tracks running over two hours long. It’s available for free exclusively on YouTube and GeoCities, with the promise of a vinyl release later in the year and the possibility of CD copies on Lee’s ongoing tour. Scrolling down the GeoCities page lends to some of that recovered, hypnotically nostalgic feeling. The page is a simple black backdrop with yellow and red serif text listing the tracks and recording credits for all of Cindy Lee’s previous albums, along with donation links, tour dates, flash images, and a choice tiny-font disclaimer “THE CEO OF SPOTIFY IS A THIEF AND A WAR PIG. HE STOLE 100 MILLION EUROS FROM ROCK AND ROLLERS AND USED THE MONEY TO INVEST IN ‘HELSING’. ‘HELSING’ IS A MILITARY ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE INNOVATOR.”

Beyoncé dropped her country concept album, Cowboy Carter, which spreads 27 tracks over nearly 80 minutes, the same day as Diamond Jubilee’s comparatively silent release. Three weeks later, Taylor Swift unleashed her protracted The Tortured Poets Department, which ballooned into a surprise 31-track double-album that runs just a few seconds longer than Lee’s record. Such overabundance is the latest state of affairs in music. The streaming landscape, dominated by Spotify and Apple, which rewards high volumes of material in order to generate more streams, has made long records an almost necessary standard. These offerings might be greeted with rabid enthusiasm by hardcore fans, but only so much grist can be fed into the mill before diminishing returns start to set in. A 27-track album may contain a few beloved and timeless singles, but the project itself will have a harder time standing up under the weight of its own bloat.

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Diamond Jubilee manages to escape this fate, in part, through Cindy Lee’s refusal to play along with Apple and Spotify. The album, as it exists on YouTube, is not segmented into individual tracks, and so demands that it be consumed as a whole rather than plucked apart to reveal singles and B-sides. There’s a temptation to turn the very act of listening to Diamond Jubilee into an ethical stance, one that also reflects a superior aesthetic sensibility. While such grandstanding wouldn’t be surprising, and there’s every reason to take the poptimist shine off Beyoncé and Swift’s increasingly limp, frictionless endeavors, Lee’s artistry threatens to be diminished in favor of posturing. Not that Lee needs saving. Flegel’s various musical projects have outlined the contours of an underground punk scene still very much alive. Oftentimes, from the vantage of the mainstream, these groups appear as little more than lo-fi curiosities apt to flame out before reaching any wider success, their legacies immortalized in merch, bootlegs, passing references by bigger artists, and the variegated memories of people who came to the show. This is a dichotomy of influence as much as size. A common accusation leveled at artists who have been hacking away for years without recognition: if you were good, people would copy you. 

In Cindy Lee’s case, the project’s conceptual boundaries are intentionally permeable, described by Flegel as “music referencing classic ‘60s and ‘70s American pop.” Diamond Jubilee’s title track makes quick work of illustrating what’s meant by “referencing.” The song is a ghostly work reminiscent of both the Supremes and Ennio Morricone, anchored by a lush guitar melody, Flegel’s distorted vocals, and an insistent bass-drum beat that builds until the whole thing dissipates. Pitchfork, in their glowing review of the album, terms Diamond Jubilee as possibly “the greatest radio station you’ve ever come across,” a succinct description of the record’s split construction and its aesthetic texture. “CD1” and “CD2” each contain 16 tracks captured through the pleasant mist of a phonograph, but every song functions as its own formal musical capsule—jaunty numbers reminiscent of doo-wop or psychedelic rock or DIY bedroom indie sometimes melting into stark, fragmented sonic tone poems. The cumulative effect of sitting with Diamond Jubilee, and it is a record deserving of at least one uninterrupted listen, is akin to floating through the very antecedents of rock n’ roll. A radio station is one useful evocation, though more often the record has the feeling of a rigorous and lovingly conceived mixtape made up of crate diggers’ gems. 

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That said, Diamond Jubilee is, first and foremost, a pop record. In its most propulsive moments, songs recall the Beach Boys or Howlin’ Wolf. All of this is rooted in Lee’s staggering skill as a guitarist and vocalist. It’s difficult to keep track of the sheer number of inspired musical details—solos, earwormy choruses, driving bass lines, snatches of organ or string, a vulnerable but slyly delivered lyric—across all 32 tracks, especially because Flegel folds in recurring melodic phrases and songs-within-songs such that one can’t be certain what came from where. 

After the first half hour, once the sonic palette has been firmly established, the listener is treated to an aural exercise in familiarity. Has that line been sung yet? Did Flegel already pick that chord progression? Have I heard this song before? Often, the answer is yes. Diamond Jubilee’s power to conjure a sense of previous encounters is infused at every level, obvious and unabashed. Flegel seems to envision artistic influence as a lightning rod for creativity rather than a smokescreen to hide behind. As such, every easily pointed-to musical reference or evocation only further complicates the undertaking that Cindy Lee is enacting. The source is clear, but so is Flegel’s unique method of getting there, at once deeply considered, even reverential, and tossed off in workmanlike fashion. 

Parsing through the unceasing deluge of music released at any given moment in search of the original and noteworthy necessarily demands a certain level of discipline. Today, it’s even more important to discern between work motivated by inspiration from the past and work that’s merely derivative—homage without slavishness, tribute without plagiarism. I’ve listened to Diamond Jubilee a few times in the weeks since its release, mostly at home where I can more fully give it my attention. There are certain songs, like CD2’s “Don’t Tell Me I’m Wrong,” that, for me, are too stirring to experience in public, though I’m beginning to lament the lack of opportunity to play this record on a long drive. Still, like the most resonant art, its very being in any form is more than enough. There are other albums from this year that I’ve responded to and enjoyed, but none have afforded me the rare privilege of effortless relinquishing of critical scrutiny. In its place is an enduring and restorative appreciation. Diamond Jubilee is a wholly conceived, freely given gift, one that places a thrilling, singular hush on everything around it. Its length and depth allows for the truest definition of that all-too-abused word “immersion.” Its democratic, opt-in accessibility, an increasingly outsider notion that big-name early experimenters like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have since abandoned, is merely an extension of Flegel’s creative project. It’s the best album of the year. 

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