Diamond Jubilee

This may be the greatest radio station you’ve ever come across. Unless it’s multiple stations talking over each other, in and out of range. Sounds arrive in strange combinations; nothing is quite exactly the way you remember. Did that classic rock band really have a synth player, and why did they pick a patch that sounds like a mosquito buzzing through a cheap distortion pedal? And those eerie harmonies swirling at the outskirts of that last-dance ballad by some 1960s girl group whose name ends in -elles or -ettes. Did they hire a few heartbroken ghosts who were hanging around the studio as backing vocalists? Or are these fragments of other songs, other signals, surfacing like distant headlights over a hill, then disappearing once more?

Or maybe this is Diamond Jubilee, the sprawling and spectacular new album by Cindy Lee: two hours, 32 songs, each one like a foggy transmission from a rock’n’roll netherworld with its own ghostly canon of beloved hits. Like much of Lee’s past work, its spiritual center is girl group music, reduced to a single girl and reflected through a hall of mirrors. From there, it extends toward the far reaches of the radio dial, and sometimes beyond: the warped classic rock of “Glitz,” the fragmented disco of “Olive Drab,” the sunburnt psychedelia of the title track, the nocturnal synth-pop of “GAYBLEVISION.” “Darling of the Diskoteque” sounds like Tom Waits and Marc Ribot masquerading as Santo and Johnny; “Le Machiniste Fantome” like a cue from some fictional Ennio Morricone score to a film about 9th-century monks. But even at its most idiosyncratic, the music conveys the archetypal yearning of pop. Nearly every song is about a lover who’s gone, and the dream that their loss—the solitary moonlit nights, the resolve to move on, the resignation to wallow forever—might be as romantic as the love itself.

Lee is the glammed-up alter ego of songwriter, guitarist, and drag performer Patrick Flegel. In a different lifetime, they were the frontperson of Women, a brilliant and volatile Canadian post-punk band of the late 2000s. They flamed out quickly after two albums, an onstage fistfight, and the unrelated sudden death of one member, but their spindly guitar lines, asymmetrical rhythms, and surprisingly sweet melodies have remained influential on wide swaths of DIY rock. Flegel’s old bandmates formed Preoccupations and soon gravitated toward the crisp sonics and propulsive grooves of new wave. If Preoccupations found a stable middle ground between their old band’s extremes, Flegel pushed further out in both directions, donning a blue bob wig and Nancy Sinatra boots and releasing a series of albums as Cindy Lee that set pure pop songwriting alongside confrontational blasts of feedback.

Flegel sometimes speaks of “going rogue” from the music industry in interviews, and has released Cindy Lee albums both via small labels and on their own. Nothing about the presentation of Diamond Jubilee, which they self-released with no promotional campaign, signals a change from that outsider ethos. Aside from its demanding length, there is the question of how to hear it: As of this writing, the only officially sanctioned methods are to download WAV files from a Geocities website in exchange for a $30 suggested donation or cue up a single 2-hour YouTube video with no track breaks. Flegel may not have intended Diamond Jubilee as a breakthrough to a wider audience, but the exuberant generosity of the music seems to prime it for one. The recording fidelity remains proudly out of step with contemporary slickness, but there are no clattering sound collages or noisy assaults on the listener this time around. The songs are immediate and inviting in ways that Cindy Lee’s previous discography has only hinted at.

Though Flegel’s songwriting tends to reference the modes of earlier decades, Diamond Jubilee’s melange of styles, united by sheer force of imagination and the haze of home recording, can’t help but recall the ’90s of the artist’s youth. Guided by Voices, with their voluminous collections of imaginary yesteryear classics, loom large. So do Yo La Tengo, in the way they can make even howling feedback come across like a whispered sweet nothing. But where those bands made a virtue of a certain amateurism—the sense that they were cobbling together anthems with the only four chords they knew how to play—Diamond Jubilee is a work of highly accomplished craft.

Flegel is the sort of songwriter who could have gotten a job at the Brill Building had they been born a few decades earlier, and the sort of guitarist whose delicate subtlety could send much showier players back to the woodshed for more practice. Their singing, often but not always delivered in a reedy and androgynous falsetto, is emotionally supple, toughening the sad songs with resolve and softening the rockers with plaintive streaks. It is rare, these days, to encounter a musician so classically skilled and so unprecious about it, with no apparent aspirations toward stuffy respectability or commercial success.

You could look at Diamond Jubilee’s ramshackle outer appearance as a sort of declaration of allegiance to the underground, or you could see it as an aesthetic choice. If Flegel’s songwriting often gives the sense that someone or something missing, so too do their musical arrangements: additional percussion here, or a bigger bass sound there, to bring them out of the mist and closer to the material world. But if you listen in a certain way—like mentally focusing on some object in the periphery of your vision without actually moving your eyes to center it—a full orchestra might flicker to life for a second behind a keyboard’s chintzy strings preset.

Had Flegel given Diamond Jubilee a traditional album rollout, “Kingdom Come” would have made a fine choice for the lead single. (Some other contenders, for those who would prefer to peruse the highlights before submitting to its overwhelming totality: the funky and vaguely menacing “Stone Faces,” the triumphantly melancholy “If You Hear Me Crying,” the soaring “Flesh and Blood.”) Its twinkly guitar lines offer one of the album’s best instrumental hooks, and its rhythmic bounce evokes no single era or style in particular while drawing elements from several different ones, demonstrating Flegel’s ability to transmute their influences into something uncannily out of time. Its opening lyric, sung sweetly from some far corner of the left stereo channel, could serve as Diamond Jubilee’s thesis statement: “The other day/I could have sworn I heard you call my name/All through the melodies of yesterday/’Til kingdom come.”

All over the album, Flegel similarly entwines images of music and loss, favorite songs standing in for past friends or lovers, and vice versa. If you were to count the frequency of every word in the lyrics—there is, of course, no official lyric sheet—“melody” and “memory” would both surely score well, not too far below “you.” The devastating ballad “Don’t Tell Me I’m Wrong” makes them interchangeable. “Without you close to me/All I’ve got’s this song/And your memory,” goes the first chorus; by the second one, the memory has departed, and Lee has only a melody in its place.

With that in mind, the marathon duration of Diamond Jubilee seems not just like the result of an especially talented and prolific songwriter’s years-long hard drive accumulation—Flegel has been talking about the album’s scope, and mentioning it by name, at least since 2020—but also like a manifestation of the music’s themes. Even after many listens, it is difficult to hold the specifics of every single song in your mind; there are simply too many of them to allow for perfect recall. Which one is your favorite, again? “Dracula,” “Always Dreaming,” “All I Want Is You”? The one with the guitar solo, the one with the eerie harmonies. The music is always on the verge of receding to that phantasmic pop realm from which it came, where love always lives on, in memory and melody alike.