August is almost over when I have the nervous breakdown and fly to Fiji. The air is thick and moistured; the album is a disaster - it's all out of my hands.
A girlfriend and I take turns driving a golf cart around the island at reckless speeds; we walk on the beach and pick up coral and mottled pieces of crab shell the colour of toucans. The sky burns as I watch from a fishing boat and shiver with fear.
The sophomore slump, or "difficult second album syndrome", is a well-documented idea that somebody's second try after a successful first try is often not as good. I am the type of person who frequently turns to WebMD to diagnose themselves of an illness, and I sit awake on a Fijian internet provider trying to WebMD myself an excuse for not writing a good album.
I read about a statistical feature known as regression toward the mean. "In statistics," Wikipedia tells me, "regression toward the mean is the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement." So basically, it's all downhill from here. I close my laptop, and puncture paradise with a scream.
To keep to the statistical parlance here, the variable (my first album, Pure Heroine) was, on its first measurement, extreme. Pure Heroine, an album I made when I was 16, cracked open my world before I could legally buy a beer.
Overnight, I started flying everywhere. I heard myself singing in department stores and in toilets, if they had speakers. My idols wanted to talk to me, or more to peel back my neck skin and drink me alive.
I couldn't shake the feeling that I had been struck by a great bolt from the divine, that I wasn't worthy, could never contain enough gratitude to settle the score. It had become the kind of statement that defines a life. And it had to be followed up.
"Think about it," Jack [Antonoff] says, downing a smoothie in gulps with the lid off, "and you'll see it makes no sense."
"Well," I say, "I guess it's more to do with giving people the illusion of safety than safety itself."
"Exactly," he says.
"I refuse to wear my seatbelt, and when they try to get me to take my headphones off I ignore them until it turns into an argument. There's just no way any of that is helping you if the plane goes down."
He opens up the session, does that fluttering thing with his lip, and pauses.
"Also, I do a thorough wipe-down of the seat and window and the area all around me. I'm a real joy to fly with. But do you really think when they clean the plane and throw out everyone's trash they're doing anything remotely antibacterial? I don't think so."
It's November, or it's June. We're in Brooklyn Heights at the studio in Jack's house, or we're at Electric Lady in the Village. Years of days and nights with one person have blurred into a warm felted mass, and spending almost all of my time with Jack is all that's normal.
He and I write and produce the record mainly alone. It takes us close to two years. We sit around the piano hashing out chords and lines of melody, adding in lyrics as the temperatures start to cool.
Jack knows every one of my secrets. Our process is intense, chemical, lots of big movements from me, arms thrown wide, a hand on Jack's shoulder, pinching him when we start to get somewhere.
He's the broader, quicker musician, and I'm slower, more linear, militant with the details, explaining firmly why a certain word that may sound better in a space leaves an entire verse in disarray. We're in deep with this stupid album, tied to its slow, beautiful bloom.
I never say, but I love this just the way it is.
I lived in New York in various hotels for almost a year.
Those months, the glow of them! The seasons and how they moved!
I feel a little stupid talking about New York. It means so much to everyone; nobody needs my hot take. But in Street Haunting Virginia Woolf talked about how "we are no longer quite ourselves as we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one's own room."
For me, that was the city's power. Leaving the cocoon of the studio to meet friends for dinner it always shocked me, the life of it, summer bodies rolling up from the subway, cellphones and street vendors, vape smoke.
In the winter I'd wrap my scarf around my face and join the huddled groups on the platform, listening to Graceland on the F train uptown, frozen to the bone and wondering if any place could be better than here.
So there was New York, and there was here. And as thankful as I was last year for the time I spent away, nothing compared with coming home.
Never here for more than a month at a time, honeymoon period never quite waning, I was a fool in love. I drank in the streets, the light, my neighbourhood with its silly white houses and hibiscus plants. I gained a pen pal, the daughter of a family who have lived on my street for 50 years. Her little notes light up my fridge.
I went to the New World on Franklin Rd by myself and took forever. I'd drift, gently squeezing grapes and tomatoes, buying overpriced armfuls of baby's breath to join the great swathes drying all through my house. After months of room service trays, the ceremony of the supermarket was breathtaking.
The album was almost finished when I came home late for Christmas break. My best childhood friend had a baby, my godson. I held her hand for six hours and watched him enter the world.
Walking up and down the corridor among the bright decorations with him asleep in my arms, I felt it wrap around my heart, what I'd feel for him forever.
For a while I'd been jokingly comparing the album to a baby, using all these metaphors I didn't understand; it occurred to me how foolish it was to think that a bunch of files were anything like this little person in a soft blue blanket, his tiny long fingernails, his eyelids like petals.
Whatever happened, I realised, would be fine. It was just an album. I would make many more, and with time they'd come to look more like the pictures in my head. I was going to have to come up with a different metaphor.
Those 10 days at the end of the year are some of my favourites - the frenzy of them, and the softness of letting go. My family comes over one night and helps me hang little lights and golden stars on the tree.
I lay on my back in the still harbour; I listen to what parts of the album I have inside my phone and despair a little again about their quality after all this time.
"Nothing compared to coming home... Never here for more than a month, the honeymoon period never waning, I was a fool in love."
I read Maggie Nelson's Bluets: "Goethe describes blue as a lively colour, but one devoid of gladness. It may be said to disturb rather than enliven."
"Is to be in love with blue, then, to be in love with a disturbance? Or is the love itself the disturbance? And what kind of madness is it anyway, to be in love with something constitutionally incapable of loving you back?"
Three of us go to see a movie about aliens on Christmas Eve. When it is over, we stumble sleepily out into the afternoon, dull-eyed and dreaming. Our faces are crumpled and our feet move on their own back to the car.
I see you look over at me in the passenger seat and for just a moment register me as a kind of miracle. I shut my eyes and let the two of them speak, your soft voices with each other the kind of small gift I keep for a long time.
The record I ended up making surprised me, I think. It's rich and lush, technicolour. There's joy to it, and pain. I'm struck by how sensory it is. In some ways it's a celebration of the senses, a devotional you can feel all this, and stay standing!
There are lines on the record I really love. I'll write a couple of them here:
I'm proud of Melodrama. Proud of how it pushed me, and pleased I didn't let that late night Wikipedia search in Fiji get the better of me.
People will like it or they won't, but at least I'll never have to make the "difficult second record" again. Every day I'm grateful that this is what I get to do, that of all the lives, you chose mine to change. Even reading this is a kindness.
Now, it's time for me to shut my eyes, and push. Just kidding.
DESIGN AND LAYOUT Aaron Wood
VIDEO EDITOR Jack Price