Once upon a time the internet used to be a much smaller and stranger place. Ok, it’s still strange but in a lot of different ways now: back in the “olden times” the general userbase was nerdier and weirder, the humour off-kilter and constrained by the limitations of resolution and bandwidth. Now access is ubiquitous, the memes rise and fall in weeks and days, and more of us are spending more time in digital spaces that often have very little bearing on reality.
This is odd really when you think about it: the net promised to be this unifying force, this great equaliser and connector. Instead its warped into a polarised nightmare without nuance, filled with bots and disingenuous plastic people who are mostly free to be annoying and narcissistic and photoshopped without any inherent repercussions. It’s moved away from the fantastical and into the realm of fantasy: how do people find the space to be vulnerable, authentic and un-ironic – normal – in a web that seems to deprioritise all of these things?
Now to be clear I don’t want this to turn into a woe-is-us Millennial angst piece, certainly other gens are also faced with the profundity of this issue as well, in particular the difficulties faced with how we present ourselves to others and how others perceive us. Whilst Diamond’s 2019 debut Reflections mostly considered the intrinsic loneliness inherent in an increasingly digital world, it also touched on some of these presentation issues with the likes of “Make Believe” and “Fade Away”; Picture Perfect hits much differently and much harder in the particular struggle of actual identity and meaningful connection in digital space.
I think we could be possible
I clearly see every molecule
Cos with my eyes closed you look real to me
These new era songs are generally much more upbeat and poppier than previous offerings, AG Cook’s glossy and sparkling soundscapes from Reflections eschewed for David Gamson’s far less clipped and more bombastic tunes, and somehow even tighter production. Hannah’s voice is also allowed to shine through far more: even from the seminal offing we have clearer vocals and more range than much we’ve had before as she sings on trying to live up to the expectations set by meticulous photo editing amidst heady bass and mushed autotuning. And its swiftly followed up by the absolutely slamming baby pink 2023 nu-girl bubblegum pop of “Affirmations” in its overdramatic slides and rolling drum machines.
One can’t help but think back to Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION at times like this and later “Poster Girl”, switching from cutesy and ditzy songcraft to lively synth pop, but now bent into perfectly thematic, ironically ironic Millennial self-reflection. This comparison couldn’t be more apt in second half bop “Lip Sync” as Hannah croons on wishing for stardom until she manifests her dream.
Much of the gritty pieces come in a mega four track run right at the heart of the record. Anthemic “Want You To Know” sings desperately in glittering electronica on the need to be known, to be felt, understood clearly without the interpolation of interpretation:
Give me one reason not to hide
And I’ll show you all of what’s inside
Flattened “Impossible” skitters out into digital abstractions again as Hannah leans back into the semi-spoken autotuning of her late night parasocial relationships, her words as crisp as the HD outlines of her pixellated fantasies. Then it pitches back hard into reality with “Flashback” whose dancefloor ready flanging synths work in opposition to the frustrations of love-lorn reminiscence.
After that it’s standout “No FX”‘s time to shine, glistening in fucking pristine physicality, striking home the absolute artificiality of the pixel realm and the power of real connection, not needing to create an image of oneself. “I know in my heart/You see me with no effects/And you get me the best”.
When it comes time to close Hannah begins to slip back and strip down. Penultimate “Divisible By Two” muses glossily but softly on the strength found in pairing and the desire to find the soul mate, and the power to overcome the world’s difficulties when split and shared (which is something we all know deep down but try to convince ourselves of otherwise when we’re alone). Somehow we’re already at the adamantine closer “Unbreakable”, disappearing over the horizon in curious juxtaposition as Hannah remarks on her crystallisation in the face of romantic adversity and reassembling herself to start anew.
Sometimes good things come from an ending
Though it’s tempting at first to see Perfect Picture as more basic bitch than hyperpop princess in terms of her evolution in sound, make no mistake this is a meticulously crafted and exacting record that’s every bit as obsessed with its image as it resents being. This is the real undiluted feeling of being not just a female pop artist in the 2020s, but really anyone presenting themselves online and the swirling confusion of parasocial engagement, and sense of inauthenticity, alienation, and need for perfectionism that stems from that. A fierce modern pop follow up.