The Book of Law is the debut album by Lawrence Rothman, an arresting and utterly idiosyncratic statement from the Los Angeles-based musician and visual artist. Created over the past two years with producer Justin Raisen (Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira, Angel Olsen) and a diverse cast of collaborators including Angel Olsen, Kristin Kontrol, and Marissa Nadler the record nonetheless charts a deeply personal journey for Rothman. Born from Lawrence’s struggles with gender identity, family conflict, and social alienation, this collection of avant-pop confessionals invites the listener into the fractured world of Rothman’s psyche. Add in an astonishing visual universe co-created with iconic director Floria Sigismondi, and you get one of 2017’s most fully-formed debuts.
Raised in the Midwest, Rothman started writing songs and recording music in home studios from the age of nine. At the same time, Lawrence began to change appearance daily, using clothing and costume to represent the multiple sides of their interior self. By late teen years, Rothman had a name for these various personalities: the Alters.
“They’re all versions of Lawrence Rothman – they’re all me,” they say. I’m the mothership and these are all of my vessels. Everybody’s got the female side of themselves, the male side, the dangerous side of themselves, the shy side of themselves. I’ve identified each in a certain way and put it into my art.”
Every Lawrence Rothman song is written from the point of view of a different Alter, which affects the style of their arrangement, vocal delivery, and accompanying visuals. Despite these differences, however, common threads run through their work: a fascination with the underbelly of Hollywood, gender expression, and people on the margins of society.
Questions of gender identity played an essential role in the genesis of the album. In 2014, Rothman came out to their father as gender fluid – neither identifying as male nor female. The older Rothman’s unsympathetic reaction caused them to experience a mental breakdown: writing the songs that eventually became The Book of Law was a major step in their recovery.
“In order to be free as an artist and human, I wish to exist as a person without the confines of a normal gender binary,” Rothman said. “I dress and exist how I wish. My body is just a vessel for my inner being. My only outlet to keep myself above ground was music and film.”
As such, the album represents a journey of both self-discovery and self-definition. Tracks such as “Jordan” and “Geek” explicitly discuss grappling with gender identity, homophobic bullying, and shame, but Rothman’s warm synth-pop arrangements and sensuous vocal delivery infer a positive reclamation of past traumas.
An enticing mixture of strength and vulnerability suffuses the entire record, reflected in Rothman’s magpie-like approach to genre. Sighting influences diverse as Leonard Cohen, Arthur Russel, Morrisey, and writer Sam Pink. In its more upbeat moments, The Book of Law reproduces the gothic edge of ‘80s New Wave greats (most notably on lead single “Wolves Still Cry”), while classic piano balladry heightens the emotional heft of the album’s more melancholic moments. “I like to blend genres and not be boxed into one sound,” Rothman comments. “Each one of my Alters has their own voice.”
Rothman’s decision to involve an all-star cast of featured artists may seem a little left-field for such a personal album, but the story of their inclusion is part and parcel of their own oddball mythology. In late 2014, Lawrence had a surreal dream in which they recorded music in a glass box with a host of other musicians – a literal dream team that Rothman and producer Justin Raisen then gathered in reality. From indie darlings like Angel Olsen, Kristin Kontrol and Marissa Nadler, to more unexpected choices like Duff McKagan of Guns ’n’ Roses, Rothman seamlessly incorporates these outside voices into their world.
Arguably, the most vital of those voices is that of Floria Sigismondi, the famed director and Rothman’s creative partner. Sigismondi made her name through unsettling, otherworldly videos for Marilyn Manson, Björk, and David Bowie, cultivating an aesthetic perfectly suited to Rothman’s own uncanny universe. A master of costume and setting, she not only expertly realizes the Alters in the album’s suite of artwork and music videos but also crafts a phantasmagorical world in which the songs’ narratives can unfold.
The Book of Law embodies the sound of an artist coming into their own after a lifetime of self-doubt, repression, and trauma. While this process can be harsh and exacting, Lawrence Rothman proves that it can be engaging, immersive, and even beautiful.