Review Summary: The overlooked masterpiece of Regina Spektor's impressive discography.
The first time I heard Regina Spektor was on a dark summer night in Ireland, in the back seat of a car heading south from Dublin. I was eighteen, and my girlfriend and I were travelling abroad for the first time. After visiting the intensely religious half of her family and attending my first and only evangelical wedding, the intensely hedonistic other half of her family and I rushed off (literally as soon as it was polite to after the ceremony) to get wild for six days at a sailing regatta on the very southern tip of the country, in a small town called Schull. After the novelty of our overnight roadtrip wore off sometime around midnight, we decided to try to get some sleep. It was one of those times where I would sometimes nod off, drifting in and out, but never quite fall completely asleep. Our chauffeur was my girlfriend’s cousin and to accompany himself on the long drive (the sleeping passengers proving rather useless in that regard) he played a strange album by an artist I had never heard before. As my mind meandered around in a semi-dreamlike state, the gorgeous Irish countryside barely visible through the car windows, the peculiar singing of the mystery artist would occasionally come to the centre of my attention. I distinctly remember her repeating “Is thirty-two still a god damn number"”
over and over, her voice making huge, sporadic jumps in pitch. I was subconsciously fascinated by it, not totally sure if I was listening to music or having a vivid dream. When we finally pulled into Schull after our long journey, it was very early in the morning. Groggy but awake as we arrived at our final destination (it was impossible to sleep to our driver’s early morning choice, Metallica’s Kill Em’ All
), I asked about the CD we had been listening to earlier. It was Regina Spektor’s Songs
, and the next week of drunken Irish shenanigans was accompanied by endless plays of this newly discovered, quirky album (not to mention unhealthy amounts of Guinness).
In the six years since, the Russian-American musician has become one of my favourites. Each of her six albums plays to different strengths of hers (of which there are many), resulting in a consistently enjoyable discography. Songs
is her second record, and it represents the transition away from her jazz roots towards the more polished, accessible later works. It has remained my favourite Spektor album since the first time I heard it, and while the fond memory of my first listen may tilt my bias slightly, it still sticks out as her best overall work. Her first album 11:11
was strongly influenced by her somewhat purist musical upbringing, using only her voice, a piano, and a bass (not to mention that one time she bangs a wooden chair with a stick) to deliver her take on vocal jazz. Songs
expands on that core sound, but sees Spektor begin to branch out into less orthodox sounds and experiment a bit. Naturally though, the focus is still her beautifully simplistic piano playing and incredible vocal range. Opening track “Samson” makes this certain right from the start. It’s a gorgeous number (an undisputable classic among fans), her voice passionately recalling an underrated love over soft brushes of the piano’s keys. What floors me most about this track is how she is able to communicate such powerful emotional imagery with such a minimalistic delivery. Throughout the vast majority of Songs
, Spektor allows her voice to carry the sparse accompanying instrumentation.
Not many artists would be able to get away with this approach, but she succeeds thanks to the personality of her voice, which carries the songs and allows for humble piano playing. “Prisoners” opens with a Chopsticks
-easy single note run before her erratic voice takes the spotlight. Highlight “Consequence of Sounds” uses the same approach, but this time the show is stolen by her ambitious rapping. “My rhyme aint good just yet, my brain and tongue just met”
she casually spits over two slowly alternating notes, starting the first verse with an honest confession. Again, Regina captivates with just her voice and a piano, but she varies the delivery ever time. Another stand-out track is the disturbing "Daniel Cowman", a song about a man “destined to hang” and thus not afraid to die in any other way. “Now that we’ve got that straight, can’t I just be left alone" I want to take a fucking bath”
Daniel Cowman exclaims after explaining that death by drowning is not in his future. The song is both comforting and frightening at the same time, switching from playful recollection of happy memories to sobering existential philosophizing multiple times. Once again, Regina Spektor gets the job done in enchanting fashion by relying on her twisted, majestic vocals and restrained piano work.
Allegedly, every track on this album was recorded with one take, and no edits were made to hide imperfections. While I’ve never been able to confirm for sure whether this is true, it’s believable because of the way Songs
sounds. Her voice cracks from time to time, notably on the previously mentioned opening track (which was re-recorded for a future release), but this only adds to the record’s personality. It feels very non-polished and human, and therefore more relatable and engaging. This also makes her often simple lyrics more poignant and affecting because of the bare, honest delivery. One could describe this album as a read-through of Spektor’s personal journal, warped thoughts and hopeless wondering and all, set to music. Fans may disagree with my assessment of this as her best album, but it’s nearly impossible to argue that this isn’t her most charming and personal.
It’s an effortlessly brilliant album, and has remained one of my all-time favourites throughout the years. Regina Spektor’s vocal performance here is nearly unmatched in its variety, personality, and power. Though the songwriting is sparse and the instrumentation is overtly simplistic, her unusual delivery, undeniable talents, and uncanny lyricism cement this album as a delightfully unique and unforgettable listening experience. Songs
is Regina Spektor’s accidental and unheralded masterpiece, and deserves all the praise and attention of her hugely successful later albums. Whenever I listen to it, I am instantly taken back to one of the most exciting weeks of my life, full of discovery and self-realization. I wish I could share these memories with everyone that listens to this wonderful piece of art, but Songs
is so good that it needs no especially thrilling circumstances to enjoy. So if this underrated gem has so far escaped your attention, remedy that immediately and enjoy one of the most distinct musical journeys you’re likely to ever hear.