Review Summary: It's no Wheel. But hey, it ain't trying to be.
Laura Stevenson (and the Cans") is/are back with a follow-up to one of my favorites records from 2013, Wheel. However, this new album is markedly less ambitious than Wheel, which I believe was intentional of Laura. I recall reading that Cocksure was going to be more of a straight-up rock record, assumedly lacking the heavier folksy influence and sheer diversity of Wheel. On one hand, I was disappointed with this proclamation, considering Wheel's diversity was a big reason for my prolonged enjoyment, as it gave the record HUGE staying power. On the other hand, and as contradictory as it may sound, I can't say I was too interested in a Wheel 2.0. So going into this record, I was hoping for a lean injection of that punk-ish Laura Stevenson charm that I'm addicted to.
With all of that said, Cocksure left me about 75% quenched (at first). Right from the beginning, I was treated to her wonderful, delicate voice amidst sparse instrumentation, up until opener “Out With a Whimper” bursts, showing its true colors, and fulfilling Laura's proclamation, lavishing in a great classic rock n' roll throw-down. The guitars wiggle and crunch nicely, and the song ends far more bombastically than it enters, with Laura shouting louder than she had anywhere on Wheel. 2 of the pre-release songs follow, and they both share very similar vibes. They are almost counterparts to one another, with “Torch Song” being the rock n' roll side to “Jellyfish's” more punk-centered leanings. Both songs are simply great, and there's no two ways about it. “Jellyfish's” lyrics tickle me, listening to cherubic Stevenson's voice wish to “stop being a piece of ***”, as undeniable punk spirit carries the song briskly along. But, if my enjoyment of “Jellyfish” burned like a healthy, yet paper-heavy fire, “Torch Song” burns like a professionally-made log fire, having yet to go out! This song has stayed in my head far longer than expected, as it really is a rather unassuming rock song. There's just something about “Torch Song's” concoction that is truly enduring, being partially responsible for the eventual rise from my initial 75% figure.
Now, I won't examine the rest of the album with that level of specificity, as not quite as much can be said, bringing me to my slight disappointment. The album simply has far less going on, which means less to ponder and explore. After a few listens, I had already begun to nearly memorize the entire album. Wheel felt sprawling to me, which took considerable time to fully unpack. It could be that it was my first album of hers, but I just can't shake this feeling with her new album. To be fair, she did warn me! But that obviously doesn't excuse all that much. Artists in the past have succeeded in creating amazing albums that were lean and homogenous, but those albums require a very high level of consistency and baseline quality that Cocksure falls just short of. When I say “just short”, I mean that it fell just short of being the amazing album that I was hoping for (a.k.a. the leaner counterpart to Wheel's success in diversity). It certainly has both the consistency and quality to be considered quite great, and objectively speaking, I gleaned enough enjoyment from Cocksure to permit the 4.0 rating I'm giving it.
The remaining upbeat punk songs of the album are all pretty great. “Emily in Half” is a great tune that harkens back to feel-good pop tracks of the 90's. “Happier, Etc.”, probably the fastest track on the album, bobs and weaves to perfect effect, with Laura providing her signature harmonies to certainly one of my favorites tracks of the album. “Life is Long” is also a solid track; the melodies really work, and both Laura and her gang of punks shine at parts like, “I quit. I don't want to be sick. I don't want to be sick no more.”
Me being the rather rigid person that I am, binaries unfailingly form in almost everything I perceive. So, simply put, there are 6 very great songs on Cocksure, and 5 that I do not find very great (although the 5 are not equally liked/disliked). Of these 5 are primarily the slower, interlude-y tracks, such as “Ticker Tape” and “Fine Print”. While not annoying or frustrating in any way, they fail to incite any emotion, whether it's excitement or tranquility. “Diet of Worms” bodes similarly, although not as interlude-y as the aforementioned two. “Claustrophobe” feels like a “Torch Song” that fails to stick, and unfortunately, the final track (“Tom Sawyer / You Know Where You Can Find Me”) relies too heavily on a few vocal melodies of Laura's that just don't quite work, in my opinion (the “ooh's” and “Can you make do"”). And this is coming from someone who could listen to Laura sing the dictionary and be mesmerized. I found “L-DOPA” to be a far more affecting track in that vein of Laura's repertoire, and as the final track, I was ultimately disappointed.
Alright, can I be nice to Laura again" I can understand one being frustrated with my seemingly inconsistent opinion of Laura and Cocksure, but I think we all make this pitfall to some degree when analyzing one of our favorite artists. There's a lot of fun to be had with Cocksure, and while it's no Wheel (a.k.a. a masterpiece), it is certainly worth a listen if any sort of punk spirit flows through you and your music, and/or you're a sucker for a tender, delicate, yet simultaneously lively female voice. Thank you, Laura and co. Can't wait to catch you in Michigan on your upcoming tour.