Jens Lekman, “I Know What Love Isn’t”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #93 – released September 4, 2012)

Track listing: Every Little Hair Knows Your Name / Erica America / Become Someone Else’s / Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder / She Just Don’t Want To Be With You Anymore / I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots / The World Moves On / The End Of The World Is Bigger Than Love / I Know What Love Isn’t / Every Little Hair Knows Your Name

In 2007, I named Jen Lekman’s third album, Night Falls Over Kortedala my favorite of that year, writing, “His droopy baritone and lovably dorky demeanor always positioned this young Swede as the prospective heir apparent to Jonathan Richman, Morrissey and Stephin Merritt; the crucial advance he makes on his third album confirms it.” With such oddball, ultra-specific scenarios like posing as a lesbian friend’s beau to appease her conservative father (“A Postcard To Nina”) or accidentally cutting off his finger when his girlfriend snuck up behind him for a hug (and calling it “You Arms Around Me”, no less), Lekman was, at age 26, one of the better lyricists of his generation.

Today, Kortedala is no longer my favorite album of 2007 (though it would easily crack the top five), in part because his next one not only bested it, but also subverted the very idea of what to expect from Lekman. With only the An Argument With Myself EP coming in between, I Know What Love Isn’t arrived a full five years after its predecessor. During this extended hiatus, Lekman apparently suffered a bout of swine flu (remember when that was a thing?) and, if a good chunk of the new album’s themes were any indication, considerable heartbreak. At the time, he referred to it as his “debut album” even though it was actually his fourth; one can partially rationalize this distinction, as the record largely (but not entirely) eschewed Kortedala’s sample-heavy aesthetic for a more organic, predominantly acoustic palette.

Regardless, I Know What Love Isn’t wasn’t just another great leap forward for Lekman but one made possible by the foundation his earlier records established. None of its songs were as lugubriously (or knowingly) lush as Kortedala’s “Sipping On The Sweet Nectar” or as sonically layered as the 7” version of “Maple Leaves” (from early singles comp Oh You’re So Silent Jens), but these relatively stripped-down tunes confirmed his hangdog persona and sardonic humor were still fully intact. His sad songs ever-more-melancholic, he also continued to fine tune his acerbic wit and kept it from curdling into bitterness or misanthropy.

One of the album’s simplest tunes, the mournful “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name”, appears twice: It kicks off I Know What Love Isn’t as a spare, barely-over-a-minute-long piano instrumental, and returns at the end as an acoustic guitar-and-voice lament that would slip into mawkish territory if not for its quirky asides (the lyric, “An F-minor-11th / or an E-flat-major-7th” features plucked demonstrations of both chords.) Between that pair of almost-matching bookends sit eight near-perfect miniatures, together comprising a ten-track album on the order of Northern Gospel (and all the others listed in that essay.)

Lekman undermines expectations of that first, piano lullaby version of “Every Little Hair…” by immediately following it with one of the album’s most lushly (or perhaps lusciously) arranged songs: “Erica America” is Yacht Rock in comparison with its shimmering chimes and cymbals, atmospheric synth washes, sweet female backing vocals and tasty sax solos. Still, Lekman’s devoid-of-reverb acoustic guitar is front and center, more Bossa-nova than Christopher Cross. Also, Cross would never think to come up with a lyric as funny as, “Sinatra had his shit figured out, I presume,” or wordplay as shrewd as “Summer is exhausting me / with its exhaust fumes and empty promises.”

Such piquancy carries over to “Become Someone Else’s”, only musically rather than lyrically. Crisp guitar pop led by a twinkling piano hook and occasionally fortified by elegant string quartet interjections, it’s an ode to friendship, or more specifically, maintaining one without a steady romantic partner’s distraction. Instead of “a sinking rock tied…” to another person, Lekman would rather be “a flat stone skipping across the ocean.” However, the song’s most notable for a reference to ex-Everything But The Girl singer Tracey Thorn in its bridge. In her solo song “Oh, The Divorces!” from two years before, she sang, “Oh Jens, your songs look at life through a different lens.” Here, he responds, “It all depends what lens you’re looking through, maybe / but all I know ’bout love I learned from you, Tracey.” It’s an “awww” moment for any fan of both artists, but that doesn’t make it feel any less earned.

If anything, “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder” is of a piece with Thorn’s best compositions. “It’s a young Friday night / and I’m filled up to the brink,” is the first lyric; surrounded by major-7th chords and an equally bright and melancholic arrangement (like a slightly sped-up “Erica America”), Lekman instantly evokes a vivid state of mind: a myriad of possibilities tempered by reality, the desire of taking action kept in check by one’s own tentativeness. The descending chorus of “She asks you what’s wrong / you say nothing, it’s nothing” is one of the loveliest, saddest things I’ve ever heard. It takes a talent as genuine and complicated as Lekman to wring tears over jaunty Caribbean-accented piano triplets and perky sax filigrees.

At its midpoint, the album finally delivers two of those ballads “Every Little Hair…” falsely hinted it would be teeming with. “She Just Don’t Want to Be With You Anymore” has more than a bit of ’80s sophisti-pop flair (just like early Everything But The Girl) but built on tape loops and samples instead of acoustic jazz (though he adds on a few harp arpeggios near the end.) “I Want A Pair of Cowboy Boots”, however, is entirely acoustic: just a guitar, Lekman’s multi-tracked vocal and a few simple xylophone plonks on the chorus. It might’ve made a great country song for someone else, but in his hands, it’s a doleful but not humorless folksong: although his desired boots are certainly made for walkin’, it’s towards “Anywhere but back to you.”

Rather than further wallow in misery, I Know What Love Isn’t picks up the pace from that point. “The World Moves On” opens with an African Highlife-sounding guitar, soon accompanied by piano, finger snaps and a flute melody extrapolating that of Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” (!) as, over six-plus minutes, Lekman relays an epic monologue about being jilted and slowly working through his pain. “You don’t get over a broken heart / you just learn to carry it gracefully,” goes its chorus, so wise and direct that it enables him to get away bon mots like “No one’s born an asshole, takes a lot of hard work / But God knows I worked my ass off to be a jerk,” like a Stuart Murdoch with no filter.

Kortedala’s big-sky production almost returns full-force on “The End of The World Is Bigger Than Love”. Opening with an extended, ABBA-worthy orchestral fanfare, it’s a soundscape as immense and joyous as early ’80s new romantic pop (complete with soaring “Wooo-ooh-oooh’s”), if a little more pastoral and less synthetic. The chorus posits that “A broken heart is not the end of the world” because, well, the title, making this simultaneously one of his most optimistic and caustic songs. The best bit comes three minutes in, when he sprouts off a list of other things dwarfed by said end of the world: “And it’s bigger than the stock market / and the lose change in your pocket / and the Flatbush Avenue Target / and their Pharmacy Department!”, momentum building with each line until the chorus returns for a final time.

Nine songs in and we’ve finally arrived at the title track, which sports a melody even Murdoch would be jealous of. Gentle and sad yet also buoyant and brisk (Those chiming notes! Those handclaps!), it finds Lekman reminiscing on more dating mishaps, like an awkward come-on to the friend sitting next to him in the driver’s seat or proposing to marry someone “just for the citizenship” (he goes on, “I’ve always like the idea of it / a relationship that doesn’t lie about its intentions and shit.”) But he always comes back to the disarming, direct chorus of, “I don’t know what love is, but I know what it isn’t,” and I’ll willing to bet such a simple, warts-and-all declaration resonates on at least some level with most listeners.

As I Know What Love Isn’t circles back to “Every Little Hair…” in its second version, it concludes on a sweet, sad tone Lekman’s sustained across the entire album. What remains so wonderfully affecting about Lekman, even putting aside his lyrical and melodic prowess is that he never suggests he’s entirely given up on love—you always sense his yearning to participate in the madness of it all, even if he doesn’t explicitly say so. Almost another five years would pass before his next album, Life Will See You Now, arrived. Considerably more upbeat but matching the same level of introspection as its predecessor, at first listen I felt moved to called it his best yet: listen to “Evening Prayer”, where he utilizes the least likely subject matter (a man and his plastic 3D replica of a removed tumor) as a catalyst for a repeated lyric (“It’s been a long, hard year”) as urgent and poignant as anything he’s ever written. Life’s a good-to-great album and encouraging for Lekman’s continued growth as an artist, but I Know What Love Isn’t remains the one to hear—so concise and complete, it won’t be a shame if he never fully tops it.

Up next: Fragments of Time.

“Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder”:

“Erica America”:


Emm Gryner, “Northern Gospel”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #92 – released September 10, 2011)

Track listing: Ciao Monday / Last Day On Earth / North / Home / Heartsleeves / Ageless / A Little War / Fast Exit / Survive / Transatlantic

I took on this project not only as an excuse to write about my favorite albums, but also to examine the format itself—what, as a work of art, it can accomplish and contain. I’ve covered albums constructed as musical or thematic suites, albums that are hard-to-categorize hybrids of disparate genres or categories, even an album crafted almost entirely out of other recordings. And yet, any music enthusiast knows that there exists those platonic ideals of the format: the ten (or twelve) track set (initially driven by how many pop songs could fit on two sides of a 33rpm vinyl record) where every piece sounds like it belongs as one equal part of a unified whole. Blue, The Dreaming, 16 Lovers Lane, Automatic For The People, If You’re Feeling Sinister and Seven Swans are but a half-dozen of these types of albums I’ve written about here (among others).

Northern Gospel, the 2011 album by Canadian singer-songwriter Emm Gryner, is a worthy addition to that list. After a pair of independently released albums, she signed to a major label and released Public in 1998 at the age of 23. During a boom time for the music industry, Public didn’t sell well enough for the label to keep Gryner on its roster; since then, she’s released all her music on her own label, which is why you probably haven’t heard of her. I first read about Gryner in Glenn McDonald’s blog The War Against Silence in early 2001; later that year, she released Girl Versions, a covers album featuring songs written by male artists ranging from Ozzy Osbourne to Stone Temple Pilots, stripped down into mostly piano-and-vocal arrangements. At that time, her neat take on Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” received ample airplay on a local college radio station; I soon acquired Girl Versions and most of her back catalog.

Gryner’s talent and longevity is enough to make any reasonable listener seriously question why she isn’t far better known (her highest profile gig was playing keyboards in David Bowie’s touring band not long after Public.) Naturally, her inclination to remain fiercely independent following her brief major-label stint has limited her reach to a potential audience by default. Still, as more artists like Gryner continue to emerge in an era where the music distribution has changed dramatically, audience size and household-name celebrity seem less relevant than ever—in fact, what has always mattered more is the work itself and how it endures.

Sift through Gryner’s extensive discography and you’ll find a remarkable consistency, from the glossy pleasures of Asianblue (2002) to the stark melancholy of 21st Century Ballads (2015). Even the relatively overproduced Public conveys an instinctual knack for melodies and hooks, not to mention Gryner’s strong, effervescent, clear-as-a-bell voice and her lovely piano (and bass) playing. She also tends to include at least one or two perfect pop gems per album: “Summerlong”, “Disco Lights”, “Symphonic” and “Young As The Night” are but a few, as is 2006’s “Almighty Love” which a figure no less famous than Bono listed in an article as one of ten songs he wish he’d written.

What makes Northern Gospel stand apart from Gryner’s previous work is that it is entirely made up of perfect pop gems—you can easily imagine each of them (with perhaps one exception) as an alternate-world hit single. It has no instrumentals, no genre experiments, no brief tracks that serve as intros or outros or links, no medleys or song suites, no mood pieces or tone poems—only ten tight, catchy songs all between two-and-a-half and four-and-a-half minutes long. While this has the potential for monotony or too-much-of-a-good-thing syndrome, each song is memorable enough in its own way to register upon impact and resonate with repeated listenings.

“Ciao Monday” opens Northern Gospel on a sprightly blend of whimsy and defiance. “I came alive in 1985 / made a pretty good plan out by the lakeside,” she sings over three resounding piano chords and a brisk acoustic guitar, taking on that well-covered subject of the most hated day of the week. The chorus is playground chant-simple (“Open the door, you can walk right through / Oh, Monday, Monday, I’m done with you”) but it’s infectious rather than cloying, enhanced by handclaps and a heaven-sent, chord-changing bridge (another Gryner specialty.) “Last Day on Earth” may up the tempo a notch and emphasize electric piano and various synths, but it plays as a natural follow-up. Transferring her gleeful kiss-off from the abstract day-of-week to an actual person, she practically beams as she unreservedly admits, “It’s a good day with you out of my life.”

After those two upbeat tunes comes a pair of ballads. “North” feels wistful and spacious, full of echoing piano chords and a rich declarative chorus. “Home” is somewhat slower and a bit mournful, underlining its Beatles-esque piano with soft surges of brass and organ. However, the songs are really two sides of the same coin. After recording albums in locales ranging from Ireland to California, Gryner made this one in her native Ontario. “North” is explicit in its homage to her place of origin (“In my heart you’re North of the border / shining down like the Aurora”) as it pleads for someone to join her there, whereas “Home” turns the tables—the singer is now the one far away from where she grew up, her regret palpable and devastating.

“Heartsleeves”, which follows, is one of ten songs most anyone would want to wish they had written. “Take all of your tears and make / a Great Lake that’ll freeze in winter,” she sings right at the intro, going on to describe an undervalued, perhaps long-distance relationship. With each line, the music builds until it reaches the ebullient chorus which seems to absolutely sparkle and sigh, especially when it hits the repeated lyric, “Don’t / stop / wearing your heart on your sleeve / Don’t / stop / ’cause of me,” those first two words delivered in a charming staccato. There’s no instrumental break at all—Gryner’s poignant melody and vocal carry the entire song, all the way until it circles back to the opening lyric at the close.

The album’s second half includes “Ageless”, an ode to a fellow musician that’s celebratory (“You’re rock n’roll and I’m the queen / when I’m around you”) but not too reverent to be relatable, and “Fast Exit”, whose piano-pounding bop resembles a cross between Carole King and The Pointer Sisters, its breathless, elated rush actually masking another lament to a lost love (“A fast exit / I was wrong / I’ve frozen you in a weekend song.”) In between those two energetic rockers sits “A Little War”, which Gryner originally recorded in a far more spare version on 2000’s Dead Relatives. Here, it’s a majestic, lighter-waving power ballad, flowing with warmth and grandeur, almost her very own “Purple Rain”.

“Fast Exit” ends on an abrupt final note with a sigh from Gryner; the next song almost seamlessly begins with her taking another breath. “Survive” is the most explicit the album comes to embodying its title. Musically, it’s a ballad full of soulful piano chords, Hammond organ and surging electric guitar; lyrically, it feels like the most personal/possibly autobiographical of Northern Gospel’s songs, or at least it hits the hardest. Working through themes of self-doubt, perseverance and day-to-day malaise, Gryner offers the following advice: “The trick is to survive, yes survive / You gotta want to keep yourself alive,” before changing perspective, asking, “Do I, do I?” It’s an intensely intimate detail wrapped in a timeless melody and arrangement.

The album signs off with “Transatlantic”, that least likely alternate-world hit single I referenced above. It’s more ethereal and less direct than anything preceding it, but still an effective closer, its melodious, overlapping vocals resulting in a gorgeous wash of sound, allowing for tension with the electronics underneath. It continues the album’s themes of the literal and figurative spaces between Gryner’s past and present and people she’s known—subject matter that would also work for an introspective, moodier album (and Gryner’s made a few of those.) Northern Gospel opts for the immediacy of classic pop, and such a pairing of sound and content proves irresistible.

Up next: Another near-perfect ten-track album, albeit on the more introspective side.



Destroyer, “Kaputt”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #91 – released January 25, 2011)

Track listing: Chinatown / Blue Eyes / Savage Night At The Opera / Suicide Demo For Kara Walker / Poor In Love / Kaputt / Downtown / Song For America / Bay Of Pigs (Detail)

One of Robert Altman’s best, most perplexing (and thus, underseen) films is 1977’s 3 Women, a drily-amusing-until-it-becomes-incredibly-unnerving psychodrama regarding female friendship and shifting identities. Infamously, he claimed the plot (such as it was) came to him in a dream—not so far-fetched, given its eerie allure and air of inconclusiveness. I’d like to think that Kaputt, the ninth album by Destroyer, the nom de plume of Vancouver-based singer/songwriter Dan Bejar, similarly came to its maker in a dream—on the title track, he even admits as much, rattling off a list of UK music mags (“Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME”) before enigmatically concluding, “All sounds like a dream to me.”

For many listeners, Kaputt will feel strangely familiar as it contains a panoply of identifiable musical touchstones. New Order homages (especially the upfront, Peter Hook-aping bass of “Savage Night At The Opera”) sit besides traces of Steely Dan’s later yacht-rock period insouciance, a measure of Roxy Music-circa-Avalon splendor, the lush, laid-back sweep of mid-80s Brit sophisti-pop groups like Prefab Sprout and The Style Council, and even a little Cocteau Twins-derived ambience, all of it transmitted via Bejar’s outwardly fey warble (somewhat reminiscent of Al “Year of The Cat” Stewart) and a bevy of creamy, cooing female backing vocals.

Upon its arrival, Kaputt seemed a bit out of left field for Bejar. Admittedly, I’d only heard one of Destroyer’s eight previous albums, 2006’s Destroyer’s Rubies; primarily, I knew Bejar as one of the three singer/songwriters (along with A.C. Newman and Neko Case) in the Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers, who had put out five albums in the decade leading up to Kaputt. With few exceptions (“Myriad Harbour”, “Testament To Youth In Verse”) Bejar’s three or four tunes per TNP record were rarely my favorites due in large part to his voice. Meandering and often mealy-mouthed, it wasn’t as seamless a fit for the band’s razor-sharp power pop as Newman’s melodic tone or Case’s siren call.

Thus, Kaputt’s departure from that template was revelatory: finally, Bejar had constructed (or perhaps stumbled upon) a sound that seemed more forgiving and complimentary to his particular voice. Technically, I can’t exactly pinpoint why they meshed so well together; all these discernible influences should have resulted in an album of record collection rock where listeners could spot the pastiche or facsimile. Instead, it came off as an idiosyncratic odyssey, driven by a sensibility you wouldn’t mistake for anyone else than Bejar’s.

Although it arrives just past Kaputt’s midpoint, the title track is the album’s centerpiece; it may also be the key unlocking a good chunk of its secretive pleasures. Its lead instrument, an electronic sequencer (“doot-deet-doot-dit-doot-deet-doot-dit…”) also acts as its heartbeat, a constant that only disappears near the last of the song’s six-plus minutes. Trumpet and sax filigrees bloom throughout, while warm guitar chords, a disco bass line and atmospheric synths color the spaces in between. As usual with Bejar, the lyrics are more tone poem than cogent narrative, such as the opening lines, “Wasting your days / Chasing some girls, alright / Chasing cocaine / Through the backrooms of the world / all night.” He’s simultaneously hedonistic and almost brutally wistful, particularly whenever a chord change results in an emotional crescendo (notably on the aforementioned rundown of UK music mags, of all things.) More than one person I’ve played this song for assumed it was by Pet Shop Boys, which hints at the grandeur Bejar aims for, but he’s far less arch or purposely clever than Neil Tennant. Like the rest of Kaputt, “Kaputt” is very much its own thing, stretched-out with extra texture but still an immediate, arresting pop song.

From there, the album’s other tracks serve as branches, extending in various directions but all connected to one tree. No less than three of nine tracks here each contain the lyric, “I wrote a song for America,” but it’s simply another reoccurring motif, not leaving the impression that Bejar’s run out of things to say. Similarly, Kaputt’s songs are packed with repeated lyrics woven into the arrangement’s fabrics as much as its horns or synths. “I can’t walk away” (from “Chinatown”), “I won’t and I never will” (from “Blue Eyes”) and “Winter, Spring / Summer and Fall / Animals crawl / towards death’s embrace” (from “Song For America”) are but three examples. In keeping with the idea of dream logic, they don’t hold any hidden meaning; they only convey Bejar’s knack for vocal hooks.

However, to dismiss Kaputt as a triumph of sound over content isn’t entirely fair. “Savage Night At The Opera” contains ample savage wit along the lines of, “Let’s face it, old souls like us are being born to die / It’s not a war until someone loses an eye!” Or take the opening lines of “Blue Eyes”: “You terrify the land / You are pestle and mortar / Your first love’s new order (does he mean the band?) / Mother Nature’s Son (Beatles reference?)” His imagery is often puzzling, but rarely is it blank. Case in point: “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” consists of lyrics Bejar reassembled from text-filled cue cards provided to him from contemporary artist Walker, whose own work deals in appropriation (according to music critic Ann Powers.) It suitably sounds stream-of-consciousness (“Harmless little negress / You’ve got to say yes to another excess / let’s go for a ride today”) but still scans as a pop song, with Bejar crafting sterling hooks out of a few repeated phrases (“Enter through the exit / and exit through the entrance / when you can.”)

Still, both the arrangement and structure of “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” are its most striking features. The extended opening almost tricks you into thinking you’ve put on a Brian Eno ambient album by mistake—all electro-pastoral new age beauty until, just after the two-minute mark, a perky flute hook appears, soon joined by a gently thumping beat and at 2:36, finally, Bejar’s vocal. It goes on for nearly another six minutes, Bejar rattling off verse after verse until the flute hook returns for an equally lengthy instrumental outro, the beat intact while a flurry of overdubbed sax and trumpet solos play us out. The momentum remains slow-building and steady, as it also does on “Poor In Love”, whose breadth seems to expand exponentially with each verse. “Downtown”, on the other hand, shoots out in the opposite direction, vacillating between bouts of crisp funk and lush rumination heavy with echo and negative space.

Kaputt threatens to floats off into the ether with its eleven-minute closer, “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” which, like “Suicide Demo…” also proceeds from a low-hum ambience to disco epic, allowing room for the pace to gently ebb and flow in between (while also dropping in a brief lyrical interpolation of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”.) It doesn’t achieve quite the same cumulative build as that earlier track, sort of just abruptly stopping on a cryptic closing phrase (“Nancy in a state of crisis on a cloud”), but that doesn’t distract from or lessen the rest of the album’s achievement (nor does “The Laziest River”, a twenty-minute, mostly instrumental suite that proceeds “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” on vinyl and European CD editions of the album.)

Since Kaputt, Bejar has released two more full-length Destroyer albums: Poison Season (2015) and ken (2017). The former further expands Bejar’s musical scope, containing everything from sumptuous strings to anthemic, Bruce Springsteen-esque (!) rock, while the latter sticks to a mostly electronic sound and closes on his biggest, boldest pop song to date (“Le Regle du Jeu”). But it’s Kaputt that transformed how I view and appreciate Bejar as a lyricist and yes, as a vocalist as well—I even dearly missed him when he didn’t participate on The New Pornographers’ most recent album, Whiteout Conditions.

Up next: (Not just) another Canadian singer/songwriter.


“Suicide Demo For Kara Walker”:

Laura Marling, “I Speak Because I Can”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #90 – released March 22, 2010)

Track listing: Devil’s Spoke / Made By Maid / Rambling Man / Blackberry Stone / Alpha Shallows / Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) / Hope In The Air / What He Wrote / Darkness Descends / I Speak Because I Can

It’s not an exaggeration labeling British folk singer/songwriter Laura Marling a prodigy: before turning twenty, she recorded two albums (the first at age 17, beating Fiona Apple by one year) and both were nominated for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize (she lost out to Elbow and the xx.) Furthermore, like Apple, her lyrics and relatively low-pitched vocals had the presence of someone at least twice her age. Impressive from a technical standpoint, for sure, but even on her debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim, one could easily comprehend her widescreen talent and distinct persona, even if the latter was understandably a bit putative.

In that regard, her second album, I Speak Because I Can, is a substantial advance. Of course, Marling’s still a world-weary teen baring an acoustic guitar (exemplified by track two, “Made By Maid” which is just that and nothing more), but from the outset, she seems more willing to take risks, both with her sound and subject matter. Opener “Devil’s Spoke” begins with neither with her voice nor guitar but a needle drop on a vinyl record, followed by a wash of electronically-enhanced ambient sound that grows in volume until, near the forty-second mark, Marling’s brisk, acoustic strumming enters, starting the song proper. A rhythm section, keys and, in the second verse, banjo flesh out the arrangement. “Hold your devil by his spoke and spin him to the ground,” she commands in the chorus, not exactly possessed but still fiercely determined.

Whereas Charlie Fink, vocalist for Noah and the Whale (a band Marling also briefly sung with) helmed her first album, producer Ethan Johns lends a tad more polish to I Speak Because I Can. Johns had previously worked with a plethora of rock-leaning artists, including Ray LaMontange, Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams and Crowded House; three-quarters of Mumford and Sons also play on a majority of these songs, which might’ve quietly overshadowed the scope of Marling’s accomplishment since the band had scored their breakthrough hit “Little Lion Man” between the album’s recording and its release (not to mention Marling was also dating leader Marcus Mumford at the time.)

In retrospect, quibbling over what impact Marling had in spite of her more famous collaborators is irrelevant (she and Mumford would split by the end of 2010), mostly because Marling is so clearly the main attraction here. Any doubts should be extinguished by “Rambling Man”, a statement of purpose as assured and mesmeric as, say, Apple’s “Shadowboxer” or even Sam Phillips’ “I Need Love”. Like many a Marling song, it starts off simply, just acoustic guitar and voice, but oh how lovingly and effortlessly it builds, wrapping a crystalline melody within an arrangement it snugly fits into while also allowing enough room to breathe. Its chorus, “Oh give me to a rambling man / let it always be known that I was who I am,” is one heck of a manifesto for a teenager; she’s convincing enough to get it across.

In another time, “Rambling Man” could’ve become a standard along the likes of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”–a major-key anthem any aspiring folksinger with a guitar in hand would want to cover on stage or while busking. For Marling, however, it’s only one side of her persona, a mere fraction of her capabilities. Here, it also flickers through on “Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)”, a perfectly accessible, comforting ballad graced with glistening strings and a melody simple enough to sing the lyrics of “On Top of Old Smokey” to; add a little more piano and it could almost be Tori Amos (albeit with a genuine Brit accent that renders words like “she” and “stay” as “schee” and “schtay”.)

Happily, much of the album traverses off into darker, Boys For Pele friendly territories. On one end of that spectrum, you have “What He Wrote”, a haunted, hymn-like lament inspired by letters written between a World War II soldier and his beloved. Reminiscent of 1960s folk-pop like “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” and Fairport Convention’s “Fotheringay”, it’s as delicate as it is engrossing, not least because of tiny motifs such as Marling’s clipped pronunciation of the words “grip” and “ship”. On the other end lies “Alpha Shallows”, a minor-key waltz with guitar arpeggios straight out of Songs of Leonard Cohen and tautly plucked strings. Marling’s also tightly wound, her mounting despair heightened by scores of ringing piano and mandolin. “The grey in this city is too much to bear,” she pleads, her immense but measured passion soon coming out one word at a time: “I / want / to / be / held / by / those / arms,” over and over, so much longing and grief you dearly hope she isn’t just singing into the void.

If that’s not bleak enough for you, the ironically-titled “Hope In The Air” might suffice. A kiss-off to a friend or lover in the guise of a caustic folk murder ballad, it proceeds at a deliberate, dread-accumulating pace: “No hope in the air / no hope in the water / not even for me / your last serving daughter,” goes its oddly catchy chorus. Which each verse, Marling manages to seem more incensed without ever losing composure, nearly speak-singing lyrics like, “My life is a candle and a wick / You can put it out but you can’t break it down / In the end, we are waiting to be lit,” with an urgency and authority you dare not argue with. When she suddenly admits, “Why fear death, be scared of living,” it’s an intriguing counterpart to “Let it always be known that I was who I am,” no matter how much she may now be inhabiting a character; come to think of it, how autobiographical is “Rambling Man”, anyway?

She further muddies those waters whenever she flashes a sense of humor and more than a hint of self-deprecation. Both come through most strongly on “Darkness Descends”: while the lyrics read like an introverted young Goth’s confessional (“Can I just say I don’t feel the light / But darkness descends once more into my life”), the music and melody are as breezy and cheerful as a quick-footed romp at a local pub’s dance night. The tempo also repeatedly comes to a pause, only to start up again as if mocking her for finding an additional thing to fixate on. She keeps all but telling us to leave her alone, only to be silently saying (or perhaps not, via her congenial, multi-syllabic “aaaahhhhs”), “But I’d really wish you’d stay.”

I Speak Because I Can concludes with its title track, a thrilling declaration of resilience in a world crumbling around one’s self. The narrator shouts out to the husband who’s left her, “When you look back to where you started / I’ll be there waving you on.” In the years since, Marling herself has rarely looked back—her subsequent discography is one of this decade’s richest. A Creature I Don’t Know, Once I Was An Eagle and Short Movie all made my year-end top ten albums lists, and in retrospect, 2017’s Semper Femina probably should have as well. With each release, she further expands her musical palette, exploring and occasionally creating new sounds and subgenres. LUMP, her recent collaborative EP with Tunng’s Mike Lindsay, takes a deep dive into atmospheric EDM folk; it’s an unlikely detour and as solid as anything she’s done. And to think—at this writing, she’s not even thirty. Marling remains a former prodigy worth paying close attention to.

Up next: “All sounds like a dream to me.”

“Rambling Man”:

“Hope In The Air”:

Florence + The Machine, “Lungs”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #89 – released July 3, 2009)

Track listing: Dog Days Are Over / Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) / I’m Not Calling You A Liar / Howl / Kiss With A Fist / Girl With One Eye / Drumming Song / Between Two Lungs / Cosmic Love / My Boy Builds Coffins / Hurricane Drunk / Blinding / You’ve Got The Love

Apologies to instrumentalists everywhere, but a striking, singular voice is usually what I first respond to when hearing new music. I suspect many listeners feel this way; otherwise, The Voice might not have become this decade’s most popular musical competition reality TV show. And there’s so many different types of voices worth hearing, running the gamut from those with perfect, bell-like clarity and precision (Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Nilsson) to those few so weird and otherworldly you can barely believe it’s coming from a human being (early Kate Bush, later Tom Waits.)

In this project, I’ve written about voices that have instantly startled (Portishead’s Beth Gibbons), comforted (Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch), disarmed (Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell) and beguiled (Sam Phillips) me; I’ve also left a lot of amazing vocalists out that, for all their merit, never made an album I loved as much as what I’ve chosen to write about here. Annie Lennox, Chris Isaak, k.d. lang, Laura Nyro, even Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen—all pretty much up there with the singers mentioned earlier in this paragraph, but none of them made the cut (though lang’s Ingenue came awfully close.)

When Florence + The Machine emerged at the tail end of the oughts, leader Florence Welch’s voice was likely what you noticed before anything else. Even if you didn’t, their debut album’s title, Lungs, emphasized its most outwardly dazzling feature—the powerful, resounding vocals of a twenty-two-year-old Brit with long, flowing ginger locks decked out in enough scarves and Renaissance Faire-ready garb to make Stevie Nicks blush. And while the band contributes much to her dramatic sound (in particular keyboardist Isabella Summers, who co-wrote much of the material), in the tradition of Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs or Shirley Manson and Garbage, they’re mostly in the background—it’s all about Florence and she alone is enough to capture anyone’s attention.

Still, a great voice alone only gets one so far artistically, as you could ask a majority of The Voice and American Idol contestants (and a few winners.) Lungs is not only an ideal introduction to Welch’s pipes, it’s also mightily impressive for a debut album—perhaps one of the decade’s best (though I’d place it right behind Nellie McKay’s.) Rarely does an artist arrive so fully formed in both sound and songs with perspectives and influences one can immediately identify (easily the aforementioned Kate Bush, definitely Siouxsie and the Banshees, maybe some Echo and the Bunnymen) and yet come off as refreshing and new.

Although not its first single, Lungs’ opener “Dog Days Are Over” was most Americans’ introduction to the band. More than a year after the album’s release, it became a surprise hit, thanks predominantly to a performance on the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Fully laying out the essentials of the band’s sound, it opens (and closes) with a harp (for the most part Lungs’ unlikely lead instrument), almost furiously strummed like a ukulele before Welch sings the first line, “Happiness hit her / like a train on a track,” stretching out both “train” and “track” to umpteen syllables, simultaneously coming off as lucid and a little woozy. Percussion heavy with handclaps enters next, followed by booming drums at the chorus. Welch makes the cliche of a song title register throughout the building start-and-stop, loud/quiet/loud tension of the arrangement. The moment at 3:05 when everything drops out for a brief false ending, only to return full force a second later, is an euphoric moment conveying her pop savvy, even if the song’s still quirky enough to remain one of its era’s least likely hits.

I first heard Lungs some ten months before when it nearly topped the UK Album Charts and transmitted the kind of buzz suggesting it’d be right up my alley. For me, it was the second track (and the band’s first top 20 UK hit), “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” where I fell for Florence + The Machine. Beginning with a swirling maelstrom of harps and flittering flutes, it ascends from the first verse on, urgent and effervescent with Welch’s multi-tracked cries of “RAISE IT UP!”; even that’s before the wondrous chorus which blossoms from electronic anticipation to full-flowered delirious frenzy: “This is the gift! / It comes with a price! / Who is the lamb / and who is the knife!” As she goes on about King Midas and makes allusions to Alice In Wonderland, you’d be tempted to dismiss her as precious or pretentious and yet it’s near-impossible to not fully surrender yourself to her flights of fancy (the song’s seemingly endless melodic permutations help a lot.)

Other Lungs tracks can just as easily render listeners fans for life. When I took my husband to see them in concert on Halloween, 2010 (of course the entire band was in costume), he had never heard their music. They opened with another album highlight, “Howl”: its sparse intro with dramatic piano chords giving way to a calvary-coming beat, the verses practically cascading towards the chorus where Welch both sings and personifies the song’s title, later spitting out phrases like Nicks or Robert Smith of The Cure at warp speed—it definitely captured the husband’s attention, to the point where, at his insistence, we repeatedly listened to the song in the car the following day.

Along with the mid-tempo but no less harp-centric “I’m Not Calling You A Liar”, Lungs’ first four tracks establish Welch’s core aesthetic so entirely it comes off more like the work of seasoned artists than a debut. Thus, it’s a little surprising/thrilling for Welch to come out of the closet as a rock goddess on the next song. “You hit me once / I hit you back / You gave a kick / I gave a slap,” she begins, a capella, on “Kiss With A Fist”, continuing, “So I smashed a plate / over your head / and set fire to our bed.” Then the music enters: no harp, no strings, just a lotta fast electric guitar (as if she’s turned into Joan Jett or The Ramones) and it’s all over in a very punk two minutes. Given that “Kiss With A Fist” was her very first single, you can explain it as an early experiment, an artist developing her sound by trying on various genres.

Still, on Lungs she follows it with a cabaret-style blues (“The Girl With One Eye”) that scans queerer than Dusty Springfield (“Get your filthy fingers out of my pie”, she warns) and spookier than Lee Hazelwood-produced Nancy Sinatra. Then, there’s “Drumming Song”, which rocks harder than Concrete Blonde or even Evanescence, harnessing a driving power by keeping the arrangement tight while still allowing for a sense of space—it positions music as nothing less than convocation and salvation; these last two tunes have no harp, either, but emit enough drama to fit in seamlessly with what precedes them.

The remainder of Lungs returns to the sound of those earlier tracks. “Between Two Lungs” starts off tentatively, its unconventional time signature and vocals-weaving-in between-the-beats purposely disorienting, but everything eventually falls into place as it transforms from tone poem into anthem, not necessarily catchy but somehow stuffed with hooks. “My Boy Builds Coffins” applies Welch’s Sturm und Drang to a near-jangle-pop (the harp does jangle a bit), Kirsty MacColl-esque character study that’s both a little silly and oddly charming, notifying listeners regarding the titular beau, “He’s made one for himself / One for me too / One of these days, he’ll make one for you.” “Hurricane Drunk” is alternately heavy (“I’m gonna drink myself to death,” goes the chorus) and lighter than air (that soulful, toe-tapping beat), while “Blinding” is an extremely slow burn of a mood piece, minor-key but not sluggish, mysterious but not impenetrable.

All good tunes, but “Cosmic Love” is the second half’s obvious centerpiece. It’s mostly just three chords repeated, but you sense there’s an entire world within them. It reprises the loud/quiet/loud structure of “Rabbit Heart” and the thunderous percussion of “Drumming Song” and piles on the harp glissandos more excessively than any other track (which is saying a lot.) Any reasonable person reading this description would expect the song to implode on the weight of all these ingredients (like a burst souffle), and yet, not only does it stay afloat, it soars, higher and higher until it reaches a tremendous, sustained peak. Like love itself, I can’t explain the why or the how of what it does; for me, it just emits a kind of pure, unadulterated bliss.

Lungs goes out on a cover of “You’ve Got The Love”, a Candi Staton song few Americans know that hit the UK top ten in various remixed versions three times between 1991 and 2007; this version also became Flo’s first UK top tenner. It plays like a victory lap, basically Florence-izing Staton’s gospel/dance original into a harp-and-strings-heavy, joyous pop finale. While they haven’t had a more popular American single than “Dog Days Are Over”, Welch and her band are no one-hit wonders, either—they’ve even scored a number one album here with the best of their three subsequent records, 2015’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. I used to say Welch had a potential Hounds of Love somewhere within her; this year’s dour High As Hope was decidedly not it, but I’m mostly optimistic she’ll retain rather than rein in her idiosyncrasies as she moves into her mid-thirties and beyond.

Up next: The ninetieth entry, and our first artist to be born in the ’90s (!)

“Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”:

“Cosmic Love”:

Sam Phillips, “Don’t Do Anything”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #88 – released June 3, 2008)

Track listing: No Explanations / Can’t Come Down / Another Song / Don’t Do Anything / Little Plastic Life / My Career In Chemistry / Flowers Up / Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us / Shake It Down / Under The Night / Signal / Watching Out Of This World

Dedicated to Howard Semones (1967-2017), who loved Sam Phillips and provided encouraging feedback on my first essay about her.

Admire consistency and certainty all you want in a musician’s collected output—it just can’t match the sudden thrill that materializes whenever an artist takes a sharp left turn and miraculously manages to land on his/her own feet. While one can easily distill what Sam Phillips sounds like into a simple sentence or even less (such as her iconic “la, la, la’s” peppered throughout the score of long-running TV series Gilmore Girls), her career as a whole is far more noteworthy for all of its unexpected twists and ongoing refinements as they comprise an ever-shifting, continuously maturing body of work.

As previously detailed here, in 1988, she left behind a successful five-year run as contemporary Christian singer Leslie Phillips (her birth name) for the secular pop world, adopting a family nickname, expanding her audience exponentially and locating her artistic voice as a Beatles-inspired, alternative-pop singer/songwriter. Following four critically adored, if low-selling major label albums, she took a five-year sabbatical, reemerging with 2001’s moodier, far more enigmatic Fan Dance. A radical break, she stripped her often-heavily produced sound down to a few carefully chosen essentials, in the process sharpening everything that remained—she was still fully recognizable as Sam Phillips, but as if viewed from a different, heretofore unconsidered angle.

Her next record, A Boot and A Shoe (2004), did not reinvent the wheel so freely. Predominantly acoustic and sparsely arranged, it played like a logical sequel to Fan Dance, only a little more outgoing, pastoral, even sunnysounding on occasion. At the time of its release, however, Phillips dropped the bombshell that she had very recently split with her longtime producer and husband T-Bone Burnett. They had worked together for seven straight albums, from 1987’s The Turning (her final effort as Leslie) all the way up through A Boot and A Shoe.

Four years later, she returned with her first self-produced effort, Don’t Do Anything. While not as extensive an overhaul of her sound as Fan Dance, it marked as bold and definite a line in the sand in Phillips’s discography as her change from Christian to secular music did two decades before. Its indelible cover image of her, fully clothed, sitting in a bathtub in a confrontational pose, head cocked as if to appear unapologetic about how much a spectacle she’s just made of herself serves as a harbinger of what’s inside—particularly when one compares it to the relatively anodyne imagery on her last two album covers.

“I thought if he understood / he wouldn’t treat me this way,” Phillips sings on opener “No Explanations”; her voice is noticeably isolated and raw (even with its signature elongated syllables) and soon joined by a strummed, distorted electric guitar and, barely audible in the background, a rudimentary stomp of a beat. The latter grows ominously louder and more forceful after the first verse, becoming primal and urgent as Phillips, not mincing any words, declares, “This is bigger than you / and a part of the truth you trust / This is the breaking of you.” A delightfully nagging guitar riff comes in near the end, matching both her quiet fury and about-face demeanor. She’s leaving the past behind from the get-go, determined to locate a way out of this mess.

With someone as beholden to wordplay and metaphor as Phillips, it’s risky to assume that Don’t Do Anything is her Breakup Album and leave it at that. Still, it’s tempting to speculate whom many of these songs are directed to—especially whenever she opts for such simple language as, “Did you ever love me?”, a lyric pleadingly sung and repeated throughout “Another Song”, or the whole of “Signal”, a downtrodden waltz where she confesses, “I gave you who I am in secret” while the Section Quartet’s strings mournfully descend with each measure. Then again, there’s the title track where she straightforwardly proclaims, “I love you when you don’t do anything / When you’re useless, I love you more.” She could be directing this towards any kind of love in her life, but the fuzzed-out guitar that finely coats the song, along with the melody’s simple poignancy and the strings that creep into the second half all leave an aftertaste—not bitter, exactly, but resigned and a tad melancholy. As she did all over Fan Dance, she continuously hints at what the song may be about, disclosing and withholding in near-equal measure.

On the album’s peppier, more rambunctious numbers, she’s less ambiguous. “Little Plastic Life” has a discernible bounce in its step with its brisk, 4/4 swing beat over which Phillips makes observations such as, “Perfect was a nice disguise / it never fit / but I still have my little plastic life to remind me.” She’s slinky, poised, almost whimsical in the verses, but when the volume turns up in the chorus, so does her temperament. “I detected a fire in myself before the flame / that BURNED IT ALL TO THE GROUND,” she exclaims in accompaniment with loud, gleeful electric guitar chords, and at once, you sense that the acidic, mischievous Sam of Martinis and Bikinis is back in full force.

“My Career In Chemistry” sustains the raucous tone in its awesome call-and-response interplay between Phillips and drummer Jay Bellerose (who is in many ways the album’s MVP.) His fills between her vocals are instinctual and intricate, a high wire act that’s fun to listen to as it tightly keeps the song’s melody and structure in check. “We had the concoction no one knows / Never found the formula, tricks exposed,” sings Phillips, constructing an extended metaphor for a failed relationship but with good humor and a hint of self-deprecation. “You’re the chemical that never did wear off,” she notes, before wryly concluding, “I still wear you / ba-ba-ba, ba, ba-ba.”

“Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” is likely the best known song here because of Robert Plant’s and Alison Krauss’ cover, which came out the year before on their hit collaborative album Raising Sand (produced by T-Bone Burnett!) Whereas that version comes off as reverent and stately, Phillips’s take on her own song (about Sister Rosetta Thorpe, a pioneering mid-20th Century guitarist whose music prefigured rock n’ roll) feels more celebratory: it raises the tempo to a folk/gypsy groove complete with electric mandolin, pump organ and a violin solo from Eric Gorfain (a key collaborator with Phillips from this album on—they’d eventually get married.)

“Shake It Down” even finds her wandering head-on into Tom Waits territory (at least musically, if not vocally): the start-and-stop rhythm sounds less like it’s coming out of a drum kit than from farm tools and household objects (when performed live around this time, Phillips brought out on stage a ridiculously giant pitchfork on which she “played” the coda’s extended solo), while Gorfain’s banjo and Phillips’s old-timey, wind-up piano noises place the song in this strange netherworld, neither fully pop nor folk nor Americana.

Don’t Do Anything as a whole falls more in line with her two previous records’ stripped-down approach than her lushly-produced ’90s work, but there are perceptible differences. “Can’t Come Down” counts only Phillips and Bellerose among its performers and wraps itself up in a concise 1:59, but it’s more persuasive and direct than anything on Fan Dance even if its lyrics remain oblique (“I tried to pull the rope down from the sky / It wouldn’t come down, so I started to climb.”) “Under The Night” plays like an above-ground equivalent to Fan Dance’s “Below Surface”, its guitar fuzz gently soothing but also menacing, adding a layer of distance to a straightforward melody. “Flowers Up” recasts the title track’s overcast resignation as clean, intimate chamber pop with its Beatles-esque piano and exquisite strings—it’s almost impossibly beautiful without feeling cutesy or precious.

The same goes for album closer “Watching Out of This World”. Although it reverts to the low-hum, fundamental electric guitar sound that’s all over Don’t Do Anything, its melody has a simple, resonant beauty that makes it one of the most affecting songs in Phillips’s catalog. With only electric violin and piano fleshing out the arrangement, it’s almost a hymn: “The splendor / The holiness of life / that reveals itself / Converting blind faith / into destiny,” she sings, before the chorus which is just the song title, the first word stretched to eight syllables, her overdubbed backing vocals inducing chills as only she can. World-weary like many of the album’s songs, it also feels like a turning point, of welcoming acceptance and finally finding peace or enlightenment. I love the guitar triplet that comes in before the final chorus and repeats itself until the song’s end—a grace note, a show of strength, a ringing confirmation to look ahead and leave the past in the past.

However, it’s not only Burnett than Phillips left behind here, as Don’t Do Anything was her last recording for the label Nonesuch. From there, she sidestepped traditional means of distribution entirely, self-releasing a series of EPs (and one LP, Cameras In The Sky) as The Long Play, a subscription service available only digitally over roughly a two-year period. It was an intriguing experiment reflecting her fiercely independent status but also conveying her savvy at navigating an industry that had profoundly changed since her 1988 debut as Sam. She’d return to releasing physical albums (2013’s Push Any Button and the forthcoming World On Sticks), but she’d remain her own boss, making music on her own terms. Even if she continues quietly putting out another collection of songs every five years or so, it’s a safe bet they will not only be worth hearing but will also continue revealing new shifts in an ever-evolving, one-of-a-kind discography.

Up next: A Passion For Power.

“Little Plastic Life”:

“Watching Out Of This World”:

Róisín Murphy, “Overpowered”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #87 – released October 11, 2007)

Track listing: Overpowered / You Know Me Better / Checkin’ On Me / Let Me Know / Movie Star / Primitive / Footprints / Dear Miami / Cry Baby / Tell Everybody / Scarlet Ribbons / Body Language / Parallel Lives

Although she’s crafted an enviable discography over the past few decades, to most, Róisín Murphy remains buried treasure crying out for excavation. Born in Ireland and having spent her teenage years in Manchester, England, she first found fame as the vocalist of Moloko, a dance duo she formed with romantic partner Mark Brydon in 1995. Early songs like “Fun For Me” (whose video actually got a few spins on MTV’s 120 Minutes) had them initially lumped in with other UK female-fronted trip-hop acts such as Morcheeba, Portishead and Sneaker Pimps; in time, they were scoring huge fin de siècle Euro-hits like “Sing It Back” and “The Time is Now” while barely making an imprint in the US (hard to do when your albums (apart from your debut) don’t even get released there.)

Brydon and Murphy split both personally and professionally after their fourth album, 2003’s Statutes—its ambitious sweep yet fine-honed pop-sense revealed how much their music had blossomed in just under a decade. Rather than logically craft a dance floor-ready follow-up, Murphy worked with experimental producer Matthew Herbert on her solo debut, Ruby Blue (2005). Herbert’s sample-heavy technique, where found sounds such as a whirring blender or a clinking bottle are as much a part of the mix as traditional instruments, was pushed to the fore; Murphy welcomed it with open arms, devising songs both relatively user-friendly (“Through Time”) and Kate Bush-level bonkers (“Ramalama Bang Bang”, which ended up becoming Murphy’s most heard song in the States when it accompanied a performance on the reality-TV competition show So You Think You Can Dance?)

For solo album # 2, Murphy moved from indie label Echo Records to major conglomerate EMI and made what is still to-date her most accessible, pop-friendly record, Overpowered. Of course, even at her most straightforward, Murphy can’t help but exude otherness (if you have any doubts, take another look at that album cover.) After a brief preview of its chorus hook (“When I think that I am over you, I’m overpowered”), the title track opens with the words, “Your data my data / the chromosomes match” robotically sung over a bed of squishy synths (I always thought it was “You’re dating my daughter,” which I kinda prefer.) Cerebral lyrical content (“These amaranth feelings / a cognitive state”) mash together with the overtly sensual music (harp glissandos dancing on top of the more grounded electronics; a five-note Yaz-worthy hook repeated throughout.) It’s catchy and confined, yet also teeming with negative space provided by its airy melody and minute-plus instrumental coda.

From there, Murphy reels out one relatively concise, disco-flavored dance-pop gem after another. “You Know Me Better” is as effervescent as early Madonna but with stronger vocals, an excess of hooks (like that recurring tinkling piano) and unstoppable momentum. “Checkin’ On Me” jumps forward a few years to circa-1990 mid-tempo, Lisa Stansfield-esque, blue-eyed Philly soul: her precise syncopation with the song’s jazz-funk rhythm lends it shape and verve while never, um, overpowering the arrangement’s irresistible horn-and-string interjections. “Let Me Know” tricks you into believing it’s a languorous piano ballad before the synth-beat kicks in at the thirty-second mark, transforming it into something worthy of Donna Summer circa Bad Girls.

Having established her pop-star credentials in just four songs (all of which were singles except for “Checkin’ On Me”), Murphy spends the rest of Overpowered slyly expanding what her definition of pop can contain and acknowledge. “Movie Star” goes for wall-of-sound-banger-grandeur, building almost an entire song out of a simple, incessant, some-might-say-relentless two-note analog synth hook over which, Alison Goldfrapp-like, she coos lyrics such as, “You’ll be director / and I’ll be your movie star.” “Footprints” pays loving homage to ’80s Latin freestyle and R&B but not in an obvious, cut-and-paste way; rather, she puts her own spin on it, especially whenever she recites the line, “It drives me crazy when you play these games,” in a near-bratty tone. “Dear Miami” sustains the electro-Latin influence, her reverb-enhanced vocals floating all over the mix, which one could almost call hazy or fuzzed-out if not for the itchy pulse of the keyboards or distorted guitars forever lurking in the background. “Tell Everybody” gets its oomph from a rhythm track heavy with onomatopoeic vocal effects (a hallmark of its producer, Jimmy Douglass), which is enough to hold interest until Murphy gets to the brash, triumphant chorus, where the melody opens up and the song’s working parts gel into a massive whole.

Although Overpowered features multiple producers and collaborators, Douglass’ work arguably bears the sweetest fruit. In addition to “Tell Everybody” and “Checkin’ On Me”, he also produced album highlight “Primitive”. Coming directly after the all-encompassing “Movie Star”, it allows the listener some breathing space with its minimal synth, drum machine and sampled, single-vocal-syllable foundation. “From the primordial soup / out of the dim and the gloom we came,” Murphy begins, before declaring, “We are animals” in a decidedly more forceful way than Olivia Newton-John did at the climax of “Physical”. However, it’s merely build-up for the glorious chorus where Murphy pleads, “I just want to get you out of your cave, man!” On the page, the lyric reads as a silly pun, but when she sings it, loudly, almost scarily, even, you immediately comprehend that any dismissal would be futile. You could call Murphy a vamp, a seductress, a confidant, a co-conspirator, but no matter what each song requires her to get across, she’s always frighteningly convincing.

Apart from “Cry Baby”, a monochromatic, nearly six-minute riff on what she already perfected on “Movie Star”, Overpowered is Murphy’s best album by fiat of being filler-free, and that includes its most atypical track. “Scarlet Ribbons”, the album’s original finale, is a bass-heavy, Sade-like slow dance ballad. Although Murphy nearly overplays her hand with potentially sappy father-daughter lyrics (e.g., “I’ll always be your little girl”), her ease and apparent vulnerability keep things in check. Most editions of Overpowered also contain two bonus tracks; they’re inessential but are not are exactly filler, either. “Body Language” gets considerable mileage out of its motor-disco beat, while “Parallel Lives” has a conveyor-belt rhythm track that complements its tart, soulful melody quite nicely.

Despite its major-label push, inventive music videos and hooks aplenty, Overpowered still sold less than 75,000 copies in the UK and never even received a formal US release (I remember having to buy it as an import on Amazon.) Its failure to connect is somewhat astonishing when within two years, Lady Gaga would become the biggest pop star in the world with an awfully similar visual aesthetic and songs that could’ve been carbon copies of “Movie Star”. Not to completely disparage Gaga’s 2009-11 run of iconic singles, but I can easily imagine an alternate universe where “Let Me Know” and “You Know Me Better” were as ubiquitous as “Poker Face” or “Bad Romance”.

I think the reason for Gaga’s and Murphy’s commercially divergent paths comes down to this: whereas Gaga painted and explicitly marketed herself as an “eccentric”, Murphy, crazy costumes aside, was more the real deal—a perpetual weirdo who didn’t need to call one of her albums Artpop to fully inhabit and commit to both halves of that compound description. While Gaga would conquer the pop charts over the next few years, Murphy almost entirely disappeared from the industry. We’ll return to her when she returns: on her own terms, and with something completely different.

Up next: Burn it all to the ground.