I’ve had Sidney Gish stuck in my head all year. That’s not hyperbole of any sort; the Boston-area singer-songwriter released her latest album, “No Dogs Allowed,” on Bandcamp in the closing hours of 2017, and I spent much of the first day of the year listening to it on loop. Since then, the 13 songs that make up “No Dogs Allowed” have taken their turns occupying my mind in roughly equal proportions — an instrumental hook from “Good Magicians” lodging itself there one day, a particularly clever line from “I’m Filled With Steak, I Cannot Dance” another — a testament not only to Gish’s skill as a writer and composer but her consistency. On her second full-length release, Gish expands her creative horizons while maintaining her idiosyncratic, charming songwriting voice, creating an album that perfectly captures the strange and anxious milieu of the internet and how it has shaped modern young adulthood.
“No Dogs Allowed” is a lonely album. That’s not to say that it sounds cold or uninviting — quite the opposite, in fact — but merely a reflection of the circumstances through which it was produced. Gish wrote, sang, mixed and performed all of the album’s tracks by herself, and the attention to detail required to create as meticulous a work as what she brings here is evident. While there’s a long lineage of modern indie rock auteurs who recorded key early works by themselves in their bedrooms, from Ariel Pink and Bon Iver to Jay Som and Frankie Cosmos, Gish’s music tends not towards the hazy, spare vibes of her bedroom pop forbearers and contemporaries but towards extreme specificity and precision.
It’s perhaps a harder formula to pull off — the layering of different instruments and guitar parts on the most complex songs on “No Dogs Allowed” is deep for any album, let alone a self-released Bandcamp project — but Gish’s approach, and the solitude used to get to it, is worth it, not least because of how genuinely unexpected the album sounds. While it’s easy to pigeonhole Gish’s music as one thing or the other— singer-songwriter, bedroom pop, anti-folk — the songs on “No Dogs Allowed” span a wide range of styles without losing her essential spark. It’s an album where the disco-pastiché “Not but for You, Bunny” can be sandwiched in between the somber “Rat of the City” and the wistful “Persephone” and feel like it belongs — the songs are linked by Gish’s distinctive, singular voice.
What that voice is exactly is hard to pin down, which is kind of the point. Gish is funny, sure — there’s a grisly line on “Good Magicians” about killing a certain rabbit mascot for a certain fruity cereal brand that gets me every time — but “No Dogs Allowed” isn’t a comedy album, really. There are too many songs that so precisely examine the anxieties of the modern condition for that to be entirely true. Yet even the more somber songs here aren’t entirely serious — “Mouth Log,” which reflects on solitude and loneliness, also contains references to the Barefoot Contessa and Japanese hikikomori.
The weird balance that Gish strikes here — the casual, tossed-off jokes and references, the stylistic flow, the solitude and the joy of the music — draws most not from any obvious indie rock ancestor but instead from the medium she’s working in: the Internet. Like any self-respecting late millenial (the ‘92-’98 contingent, roughly speaking), Gish has always existed in a world fundamentally weirded by the Internet. And her music speaks to this, both directly and more subtly — Gish directly references weird-internet touchstones like the hyperactive meme centrifuges of Facebook groups like Post Aesthetics, but the way her lyrics and music in general weave disparate references and stylistic elements together to create surprisingly emotional imagery evokes nothing more than how the memetic engines of the Internet work. The endlessly hook-y choruses on “No Dogs Allowed” rarely ever stay exactly the same from iteration to iteration — Gish’s writing is ever-changing.
Yet beyond all of the conceptual levels to Gish’s music, it’s important to note that “No Dogs Allowed” is a fun and imminently listenable album. It’s one of those works that rewards multiple rounds of listening — there’s always another reference you missed, or a guitar riff or vocal harmony layered deeper — and feels fresh every time. All of the gimmicks and surprises that Gish brings are held together because she’s a ridiculously adept songwriter. A song like “Sin Triangle,” which weaves together trigonometry, Japanese isolationism and a cut up sample of a 1950s educational film about personality, only works because of the backbone Gish gives it, anchored by a power pop guitar solo.
It’s a critic’s cliché to declare an album “timeless” as a sign of its classic status. Yet “No Dogs Allowed” achieves greatness not through its timelessness but its intense bond to the moment it exists in. It’s the sort of album that can only exist in this Internet era, an era that simultaneously feels hyper-connected and intensely lonely. By tapping into that spirit as only a denizen of the Internet can, Sidney Gish has made a deeply time-bound masterpiece.
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.