Non La Sounds Brand New on 'Like Before'

BY Leslie Ken ChuPublished Mar 25, 2024


Wish fulfillment isn't all it's cracked up to be. Non La, the moniker of Vancouver musician DJ On, learned this between releasing his 2020 debut album Not in Love and his sophomore album Like Before. Where On spent Not in Love pining after that ineffable feeling, Like Before finds him realizing that love comes with its own complications.

A mainstay of Vancouver's DIY scene, On always brings sugary riffs and spiky guitar solos to any band he's in, including Exclaim! New Faves Megamall. Even when he goes solo as Non La and sings about the challenges of coming out as a gay person tokenized for being Taiwanese-Vietnamese, his hook-heavy chops make for feel-good listens. It helps that his songs often carry a sense of humour, like Not in Love cut "Light in My Loafers," a sunny bop about gay app-driven hook-up culture.

But Like Before (produced by Gal Av-Gay of Dumb, Megamall, and Nice Apple) trades immediately gratifying, playful hooks for sullen, slow-burning and more structurally complex songwriting. Performed entirely by On except backing vocals by his Maneater bandmate Lindsay Stewart, Like Before's 12 songs call to mind explosive rockers like Indigo De Souza and Bully but without their howling, raging vocals. "Every Lie" begins as a heartbroken strummer then builds to a cascading crescendo; The wounded "Hurtful" climaxes in a volcanic guitar eruption.

One thing that remains like before on Non La's new album is On's unabashed willingness to bare his feelings. He's no stranger to self-deprecation, especially for a laugh (he is a stand-up comedian, after all), but it's hard to hear the humour in his voice when he sings a line like "You're too good for me to be true" on the overcast "I Don't Want to Know" or when he lusts over someone despite their rocky ups and downs together on the self-loathing "Every Lie." He's also all too aware of his inability to get over past romantic entanglements. "It's taking every part of me to say no / It's taking every part of me to let it go," he sings on "I Don't Want to Know."

"Forget," a sparse track adorned with little other than On's note-picked guitar, is the strongest example of his denial, the kind of denial a person clings to so they can preserve what they believe is a good thing. "Take my hand / Stay with me / I need you / You need me / We've got so much more to do here if you let us be / Just forget what you've seen / Please let go / Please for me," he pleads. It's an extension of the comfort, protection and safety he seeks on "Take Care" and "Hold Me Down"; on the latter, he wishes to be held in the arms of another: "It's taken me so long / I guess there's nothing wrong / Save me from myself / Now there's no one else / But you," he sings, extolling love as a (false) saviour. And on "Running Out," the most toxic manifestation of On's self-doubt, he wonders, "Am I everything that you have been wishing for / Or is it just too cold for you at night / Is this the best or is it only good enough?"

Despite On's hard feelings, he still sneaks horny wordplay into Like Before; not only is it his comic instinct, it's also his desire for his music to be joyous rather than, as so many marginalized artists often feel compelled to be, driven by a sadness bordering on exhibitionism. The title track is the closest call-back to Not in Love, a totally fuzzed-out jam where he agonizes over the question, "What does it mean / If I don't have you in me / All of the time like before?" before continuing, "I know there's nowhere I would rather be / Coming home to you but not coming." And when he sings "Will you open up / Like the earth beneath me / Will you swallow me / Like a tidal wave / After you crash into my body / Like something familiar, baby" on "Into the Water," it's hard not to hear rushing innuendo in his words.

Like love, shifting tones between albums is a gamble. But Like Before pays off, adding more dynamism to On's already prolific repertoire. And best of all — perhaps even most healing of all — he can still laugh at his growing pains.

(Mint Records)

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