Monday, March 2, 2009

Spendthrift With Love: Polly Scattergood's Debut Album

After a series of three singles in the last three years, Essex-based Polly Scattergood will finally release her self-titled debut on March 9. She's got all the right quirks in all the right places: she has a perfectly archaic, romantic surname; her album cover image portrays her as an enigmatic, updated Alice in Wonderland; and best of all, her lyrics and music live up to the rest with their candid poetry and dark emotional depths. This album is an expertly crafted document of emotionally-battered mental fabric unravelling thread by golden thread. I can see the comparisons with Kate Bush and Bjork, but she feels refreshingly new and tragically romantic in a different way. This vulnerable record takes on Ophelia-like madness with fists full of flowers and clods of dirt as Scattergood strips her soul to its fractured core.

The album begins with I Hate the Way, a track which released last year as a single. The music hums and clicks lightly beneath Scattergood's captivating, breathy vocals; ominous electronic noises shiver and pulse through the track while she relates the haunting details of an emotionally abusive relationship. About two minutes into the song, electric guitars tear through and elevate the mournful, broken tone into a passionate, mad lucidity, culminating in "doo doo doo's" that are the narrator's answer to "My doctor said I've got to sing a happy tune," the haunting last line before the reverb-laden rap during the last minute of the song. Switching into third person briefly, Other Too Endless is a melodic ode to denial that periodically rumbles with the narrator's quavering emotions, miniature maelstroms threatening to capsize her. The following chorus is repeated several times throughout the track in an infinite spiral: "It can't be real/No, it can't be real/If I close my eyes, then maybe I won't feel/Another too endless/So do you think I should end this?" Backed by teardrops of piano, Untitled 27 opens with ephemeral snatches of "I miss you," "I'm lost," and "Where are you?," like the missives of childish spirits lost in their own static and unresponsive looking-glasses. Scattergood's vocals are ragged through lines like "suicidal tendencies drink creativity," and they reach dizzying heights of heartbreaking desperation as she cries "It hurts to be here."

The tone shifts with Please Don't Touch as broad strokes of acoustic guitar punctuate her staccato, child-like delivery. Hovering between whispers and coos, Scattergood delivers a whimsical, unpredictable performance, enhancing self-reflective lines like "feeling strange and looking rotten"; at the same time, she reveals her contemporary youth with references to "skinny jeans and Pick 'n Mix." The tempo comes back down for the piano-based I Am Strong, a track that delicately dances through a steady stream of reiterated self-declarations in ever-increasing whirls of misty vocals as she tries to shake the witch from her back and reconcile the conflicts in her self-perception.

Beginning with light airiness, Unforgiving Arms tells the story of a "typical writer" and the "typical sinner" who falls in love/hate with him. Unflinchingly self-flagellating, the narrator blames herself and her own personality flaws for the relationship problems. Despite the sweetly melodic phrasing and bouncy snares, the undercurrent is undeniably morbid as the narrator declares the futility of offering messy feelings to an emotional fortress: "He won't let me in/In case I crease his pages." The fragility and insecurity of the narrator surface again in Poem Song, where Scattergood peels back the scabs of mental wounds against a background of hesitant piano and vocals that rasp and sob with a controlled rage and frustration. More than three minutes into the song, a reprieve of violins comes in before Scattergood re-enters with an almost disturbing plea for reunion.

Austere synths and a drum machine take over for Bunny Club, a jet-black recounting of sleaze, which displays a brilliant schizophrenia as Scattergood's vocals slip easily between dirty breaths and innocent sunshine; she explodes the angel/whore dichotomy in a flurry of discordant, symphonic synthpop. Nitrogen Pink, another previously released single, is buzzing and whizzing with pent-up, squealing feelings that threaten to shatter all composure; it's like the narrator is spinning round and round with open arms, triumphantly welcoming the pain like bouquets dripping with blood-red flowers. Apparently, Scattergood wrote the song about a friend deteriorating with cancer. The record concludes with Breathe In Breathe Out, a serene piano ballad accented with bird twitters. It is a weary resignation after all the preceding catharsis as Scattergood's voice delicately falters with the lyric "Learn to breathe in/Learn to breathe out/I can't let you go...yet."

There is something truly magical about Scattergood's debut; it breaks your heart with the delicacy of a heart surgeon. She accomplishes a record akin to a diary of an eighteenth-century woman accused of hysterics and committed to Bedlam. And when you're finished listening, you emerge feeling purified by insanity. For Scattergood, the people she loves are the ones who are here today, gone tomorrow, leaving her naked and impoverished; her only crime is being a spendthrift with her love.

I Hate the Way - Polly Scattergood

I Am Strong - Polly Scattergood

Nitrogen Pink - Polly Scattergood


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