Why Cindy Lee’s ‘Diamond Jubilee’ Resonates As A Left-Field, Feel-Good Indie Rock Story

If you will allow me to sound like a 10,000-year-old man for a minute: I recall a time when the internet felt bigger. Remember that? It was like the Wild West, only cleaner and more murderous.

Back then, I had a routine and I would wager you had the same routine if you were a music fan. It goes like this: You wake up, you log on, and you start circulating through a mental checklist of websites and blogs. Might be 10, might be 15, might be 50. But you punch in the URL for each one. Then, you peruse every front page like it’s a magazine, dipping in on this link and lingering at this other link. Most of the stuff you read is about things you have never heard of. You discover a lot of music you don’t care about, a decent amount of music you actively dislike, and — if you’re lucky — a song or two that you enjoy and maybe even kind of love. But if you don’t find that song or two, the routine is still nice, like taking a leisurely walk through a vast digital space. Only you don’t realize how nice it is, because it’s routine. But it won’t be for long.

That digital space isn’t so vast anymore. I mean, it is big, but most of us are now housed behind the thick walls of social-media apps and streaming platforms. We don’t go out much anymore. We stay in one place and have our content delivered like UberEats. For a music fan, there is still so much to discover and enjoy. And a lot of it comes from artists who don’t receive nearly the attention they deserve. But the meals keep coming in five-minute intervals. You try to gorge as the endless scroll shotguns sustenance in your general direction, but you can only take so much. What was once fun now seems like work.

If you relate at all to the previous three paragraphs — and if you are also interested in left-field, word-of-mouth indie-rock hits — there’s a good chance you have fallen under the spell of Diamond Jubilee, a 32-song retro-pop masterwork by a songwriter, guitarist and drag performer based in North Carolina named Patrick Flegel, who currently records and performs under the moniker Cindy Lee. On March 29, Flegel released Diamond Jubilee on YouTube and via a “Wild West internet era”-looking GeoCities site, where they solicited a voluntary $30 fee — in Canadian dollars, as Flegel originally hails from Calgary — for the expansive double album. There were no advance singles, no press photos, and no PR campaign of any kind. It was not available to stream on Spotify or Apple Music, and it was not put up for purchase on Bandcamp. Diamond Jubilee was, for all intents and purposes, off the grid for how music is typically heard and discovered in 2024.

And yet, in just a few short weeks, Diamond Jubilee became one of the most critically acclaimed and — among a small-ish but quickly growing cult following — intensely adored indie albums of recent years. I heard about it in early April, after my podcast partner Ian Cohen recommended it on our show. Over the following weekend, I quickly became obsessed. Here was an immersive LP that tried to encapsulate a pocket history of modern popular music — ’60s Motown, ’70s bubblegum pop, ’80s C86 jangle, ’90s lo-fi indie — in a way that felt warmly familiar and fascinatingly alien. It was like a record you knew you already loved but couldn’t remember ever hearing before. The lyrics were lovelorn and miserably romantic, endlessly dwelling on doomed affairs in the manner of all classic pop tunes. And the music evoked the underground rock of the 1980s (particularly the “Velvet Underground meets Phil Spector” girl-group goth-isms of The Jesus And Mary Chain), the ’90s (think Broadcast meets Belle And Sebastian) and the aughts era acts that were similarly drawn to collisions of pure throwback pop and droning noise (The Concretes, Camera Obscura, Saturday Looks Good To Me). The pileup of references and allusions were irresistible for a critic inclined to dissect pop songs, but Diamond Jubilee ultimately exists outside of time or carefully curated genres. That’s what so cool about it. It’s like listening to the best of the past harmonize with an exciting future, right here in our boring present.

And then there was the matter of how Diamond Jubilee was released. If the album itself invites you into a world that feels singular and also weirdly reassuring, the flaunting of modern music platforms made the online world feel a little bigger again. If you wanted to hear Diamond Jubilee, you had to take at least a small step outside the internet’s usual fortified walls. As Aquarium Drunkard — a stalwart holdover from the Wild West days — put it,Diamond Jubilee feels like a throwback to a different, weirder, cooler, better era in independent music.”

By the time that Pitchfork awarded Diamond Jubilee its highest score in four years last week, something had … happened. One couldn’t help but note the improbability of this album’s rapid ascent in the midst of rollouts for two of the year’s most massive pop juggernauts, one of which has already dominated popular discourse (Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter) and one that will surely be escapable once it drops on Friday (Taylor Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department). To be clear: Cindy Lee has not and will not garner even a tiny fraction of the dialogue afforded those blockbusters. But it still feels like a glitch in the matrix, the kind of record that is not supposed to be here but is definitely here nevertheless. The sort of upstart success that was presumed to be impossible without TikTok or some other social-media chicanery. Diamond Jubilee might be a great album, but it’s an even better story.

As readers of Pitchfork scrambled to YouTube or tried in vain to figure what GeoCities is, some grumbled that the release strategy was a gimmick. As if putting WAV files on a site so janky that X (formerly Twitter) wouldn’t let me post a link is some can’t-miss publicity scheme. The criticism also overlooks Flegel’s long career — hardly a flash-in-the-pan, they have put out seven albums as Cindy Lee following a stint as a member of the influential and combustible ’00s indie band Women. In the Cindy Lee guise, Flegel performs in a sequin dress, fur coat, boots, and blue wig, singing in a ghostly falsetto and playing beautiful guitar lines over pre-recorded backing tracks. Judging by YouTube clips — Flegel is currently in the midst of a “farewell” tour that has suddenly become a hot ticket — the vibe of the live show approximates Dean Stockwell’s theatrical pantomime of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” from Blue Velvet. It is spooky and lovely, melancholy and tough, and always unpredictable.

The paradox of writing about Diamond Jubilee is that it threatens to undermine the album’s charm. Flegel has already expressed misgivings about engaging their fans in the music press. No matter the protestations of hype-averse skeptics, Flegel did not actively court indie fame before the album’s release. “If you want to sell units sometimes you have to do stuff,” Flegel told Gimme Zine in 2020, when they were just starting to conceive Diamond Jubilee. “I got a publicist for the last record, but you watch the press and publicist (who’s a friend of mine) people stumbling around queer… branding you… the whole thing makes me squirm.”

In another interview, Flegel gives some clues to Diamond Jubilee‘s backstory when they talk about listening to AM oldies radio as a child in the ’90s along with contemporary hits by everyone from Soundgarden to C+C Music Factory. These catholic tastes are evidenced by the oft-surprising combination of music styles on Diamond Jubilee — the Philly soul strings stabbing through the springy GBV-esque guitars on “Olive Drab,” the bassline lifted from Tommy James’ “Draggin’ The Line” that melds with the clanging Joy Division sonics of “Flesh And Blood,” the guitar lick that somehow nods to both Can and Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” in “Kingdom Come,” the unlikely summit of The Supremes and The Brain Jonestown Massacre that is “If You Hear Me Crying.”

After surveying Cindy Lee’s previous work, the relative accessibility of these songs is immediately apparent. Flegel typically slathers their melodies with paint-peeling squalls of white noise; on this record, the songs beam and crackle brightly like transmissions from a magical transistor radio. This soothing aspect to Diamond Jubilee apparently was intentional. “The kind of music I have been listening to more, over the last four or five years, has been basically easy listening, light music,” Flegel told Gimme Zine. “What I have in my head is a pleasant-sounding record that’s comforting and isn’t just some kind of hell ride.”

Diamond Jubilee is composed of material stockpiled during the pandemic-era lockdown, though the final result sounds like a carefully plotted concept record documenting the career of a late, great (and imaginary) pop group. I burned the songs onto two CD-Rs, and listening to Diamond Jubilee this way enhances the feeling of listening to a greatest hits collection of made-up “greatest hits.” The first disc is very good but somewhat less refined, with nods to the dulcet third VU record (“Wild One”), grindhouse Eurotrash horror soundtracks (“Le Machiniste Fantome”), and The Pod era Ween (“Demon Bitch”). The second disc, meanwhile, is a near-masterpiece, affecting a more consistent psych-soul sound that moves from sinister (“Stone Faces”) to delirious (“Dracula”) to heartbroken (“If You Hear Me Crying”) to haunted (“Durham City Limit”).

I wonder what Flegel thinks now that Diamond Jubilee has reached listeners outside the usual ranks of Cindy Lee fans. I hope they are proud of making an album that’s already touched a lot of people, as well as the achievement of denting our stultifying music and media system in a small but significant way. It’s good to be reminded of that vast world beyond the walls we willfully imprison ourselves inside of. Out there, there are many diamonds in the rough, just waiting to be discovered.