‘Sacred Elements and Secular Sentiments’ – Daniel Caesar: Freudian

Exploring the religious undertones of one of 2017's most celebrated albums

We knew Daniel Caesar grew up on gospel music. We knew Daniel Caesar sings with a Canadian sensibility. We knew that Daniel Caesar channels his religious values and experiences into the lyrical themes of his songs.

What we didn’t know, however, is just what Daniel Caesar’s debut album would sound like.

Having released two EPs, Praise Break and Pilgrim’s Paradise in 2014 and 2015 respectively, Caesar has amassed a steadily growing body of devotees who are drawn to his ecclesiastical sentimentality and emphasis on tender intimacy. So when Freudian was released late last year, Caesar certainly delivered to the fans precisely what they wanted.

Caesar called the album Freudian after learning of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex, finding inspiration in the theory’s proposition that a child has an unconscious desire for the opposite-sex parent, in order to make sense of his own previous relationships. However, Caesar also draws from his pious experiences growing up with parents and a community unwavering in their fidelity to their faith. For Caesar, a child growing up in a tight-knit community of Seventh Day Adventists, a mainstream or secularist music culture was simply not a part of his upbringing.

Yet the sounds of R&B and neo-soul were too alluring for a youngster who was exhausting the gospel music on which he was raised. The polarity between those devotional and secular styles was mirrored in Caesar’s life by his growing disillusionment with his Christian upbringing. So with Freudian, Caesar sought to reconcile the dichotomies that fraught his life.

Freudian is a ten-track anthology centred upon sacred elements and secular sentiments, which are packaged in velvety, sensitive songs. Lyrics, mood, vocal capability, cohesiveness, presence, and guest features all fit nicely within the 45-minute runtime. While Caesar draws from elements of R&B and neo-soul, Freudian is grounded in black gospel in both music and subject matter. So whilst Caesar may have left the church behind him, it pervades Freudian. Gospel roots in the form of choral harmonies can be heard on ‘Neu Roses (Transgressor’s Song)’ and ‘We Find Love’, whilst gospel instrumentation is strewn across the tracks. The Hammond organ is generous applied as gloss paint over the majority of Freudian, which provides a devotional sheen to a familiar R&B sound.

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The album’s sonic spectrum plants it firmly in the services, concerts and conventions that Caesar would have undoubtedly grown up attending. Yet that R&B feel is omnipresent throughout the album. The muffled synths and snare-accenting guitars hark back to both neo-soul jams and 70s soul records.

Whether by creative volition or out of circumstance, Caesar has mostly operated independently on his two previous EPs. With Freudian, Caesar enlisted the artistic forces of Kali Uchis, H.E.R., Syd and Charlotte Day Wilson, with many of the collaborations producing the finest material on the album. ‘Best Part’ and ‘Get You’ (featuring H.E.R. and Kali Uchis respectively) both stand apart from the other joint ventures for their plush, tight arrangements and vocal performances. ‘Best Part’, the opening song on the album, is a saccharine ditty that flows through themes of vulnerability and openness, and evokes images of gentle, morning moments between lovers who are in blind infatuation. ‘Get You’ is equally sentimental, with the chorus hook (“Who could’ve thought I’d get you”) explicitly regaling true adoration and unworthiness, and portraying a romance that is perpetually anchored in the honeymoon phase.

Indeed, Freudian is full of lyrics that, on paper, appear mawkish (“You’re the coffee that I need in the morning / You’re my sunshine in the rain when it’s pouring”), but this Canadian imbues them with such warm benevolence and sincerity that they reverberate with truth. What is apparent after listening through the entirety of Freudian is that the devotion in Christian faith that Caesar chastises and rejects is, perversely, the album’s basis, with the artist using devoutness as a symbol for his unconditional, unrequited love.

Ultimately, Caesar’s first full-length creative output is an audible representation of his spiritual and emotional odyssey from boy to man. Freudian plays like a beautifully-tracked voyage into the depths of both romantic and self-love, and the adoration of the sacred that finds its way into both. Whether Daniel Caesar still believes in a higher power or not, Freudian binds the disparate sacred elements and secular sentiments convincingly.