The context surrounding In Praise Of Shadows
Jessie Atkinson
17:59 29th January 2021

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Romantic to a fault, multi-hyphenate musician Puma Blue (real name Jacob Allen) first experienced an improvement in his lifelong “crippling” insomnia when he met his partner Olivia, and now - three years later - he plans to follow her to Atlanta.

London’s loss will be Georgia’s gain. Puma Blue has been a bright spot on the city’s gig-listing carousel for several years, and on his debut album In Praise Of Shadows - out on 5 February via Blue Flowers - Allen continues to beguile. Across the fifty-minute record, the 25 year-old touches on hip-hop, soul and blues - all painted on a canvas stretched across a deep, often dark, sense of intimacy.

Though insomnia, depression and the attempted suicide of his sister appear as silhouettes balanced on Allen’s easel, hope, devotion and relief all show up too. Describing “99%” of what he writes as “utter garbage”, Allen goes through a lot of drafts before he finds an idea worth honing. “When I write it’s less like I’m committing, and more like scrapbooking or scribbling stuff on a page,” he tells me softly over the phone, “when I’m releasing music it’s more like I’m exhibiting a full painting.” The renderings that appear on In Praise Of Shadows are thus fully-realised portraits that show the hidden parts of a soul. Each of these fourteen tracks are at once remarkably intimate and yet fantastically opaque: ephemeral and fragile, it's as though Allen captures smoke from the air to use in his craft...

In Praise Of Shadows is a title borrowed from the 1933 Junichiro Tanizaki essay, a piece which "had a profound influence” on the artist as well as the art: “both aesthetically in terms of negative space, but also that metaphor of finding light within dark”. In addition to imbibing Björk, Burial, D'Angelo and Josh Frusciante, Allen also found inspiration in film during the making of his debut LP. In particular: the articulation of “softness through metaphor” in “Stalker by Tarkovsky, Orpheus by John Cocteau and Lost In Translation by Sofia Coppola”. “People being able to articulate that softness in a visual way inspired me to do that with sound” he says.

The experiment, as you will soon hear, was a roaring success: the songs on In Praise Of Shadows are so light as to make you worry they may blow away; even, impressively, on tracks that cover heavy subjects. ‘Velvet Leaves’ addresses the horror of the day Allen’s sister attempted suicide (“where’s that little girl I knew?”) while, he reveals, single ‘Snowflower’ “is about letting go of hope”. “It’s on the mentality in a relationship of saying ‘this is over. Whatever we thought it was at the beginning - this pure innocent love - that’s dead now and we can’t get that back.’ It’s a song that says goodbye.” ‘Super Soft’ also addresses romantic endings, having been written for “a friend going through a break-up” - “but it turned out that he got back together with his partner”. Take sorrow or joy from ‘Super Soft’ - either way, you’ll be right.

There is an aqueous, nocturnal quality to a lot of Puma Blue’s output - and there has been for years - though Allen now offers you the opportunity to step into a dawning world in which morning does eventually break. You can hear it on the peppy rhythm section on ‘Cherish (furs)’ and the watery guitar on ‘Silk Print’. The blissful wonder that is sleep even gets a shout-out on the titular ‘Sleeping’, in which guitar noodles and cymbals triple.

The fact of the matter is that Jacob Allen has started to sleep again, after over a decade of seldom doing so. As we noted, the recovery coincides with the arrival of Allen’s parter in his life - “make of that what you will”, he laughs. Whatever is behind the transformation, the change is audible. “I had a moment when I started to sleep better where I thought: ‘is this how people feel all the time?’ ‘Do people really have this much energy?’ ‘I feel like a superhero!’” he enthuses, “I used to just get through it and survive. Between the ages of 19 and 21 or 22 I was getting two or three hours [of sleep a night] max.” No surprise that there is so much darkness and night in Puma Blue’s output then, and a wonder indeed that the overall effect is one of such lightness: the sense of spring light lazily spotlighting dust on a rug.

“When I look back at my old drafts…God, even music that I did release, sounded way more distressed and low energy. Insomnia was impounding a depression. There’s more value to life now that I’m sleeping better” Allen says. It did take practice to write from a new place of clarity and acceptance. As we all know, great art emerges from pain, and it took a little while until the new-found happiness in Allen’s life could translate into his music. “Art was purely just a way to vent or get catharsis, then when I was happy I didn’t feel the need to write. Now I think I use music for lots more things. I found a way of slowly learning to write when I’m happy and that’s been life-changing”, he explains, “Theres been a turning point in the last couple of years where I’ve been able to channel joy into writing for the first time.”

You will hear the joy - on the deep, creaking comfort of ‘Super Soft’, the electronic bliss of ‘Sweet Dreams’ - and you will see it, too. The cover art for In Praise Of Shadows shows Allen spread on a bed, his face obscured by a white curtain that appears to flutter in an invisible wind. “I had been mood boarding what I wanted for the album for a long time,” Allen notes, “some of the attempts ended up being single covers, but then we moved into the bedroom and we ended up getting some photos of me from outside through this curtain which was blowing around. It felt very dreamlike.” Viewed alone, the image captures that sense of unbearable lightness of being: the idea of a soul being over-exposed to light. 

And who took the photograph? The person who is behind so much of Allen’s transformation, both personal and professional: his partner. “It sounds ridiculously romantic,” he smiles. And it is. But in the context of little else, it also makes an awful lot of sense. 

In Praise of Shadows arrives 5 February via Blue Flowers.

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Photo: Netti Hurley