Leading off promotion for Sprinter with a video for “Strange Hellos” was a good call, as the record opener is one hell of a track. A scrappily blonde dyed Mackenzie Scott engages the camera in a menacing stare-off, the newfound tough girl persona matching the minimalist grunge backdrop. The whole thing is delightful both aurally and visually, with raw voice cracks and vibrant tremolo complemented by vivid imagery and awkward camera crops. However, the magic unravels right at the end, in what feels like an outtake – the final notes of the song ring out, a bit of feedback kicks in, and Mackenzie just stands there, her gaze softening, her head drooping forward in a manner characteristic for her, before quickly ducking out to the side as the camera cuts. This possibly accidental display epitomises Sprinter in all its glory.
Torres’s sophomore album finds her expanding the dynamic range of her music, but whilst she may belt out the occasional yell, pummel away on a distorted guitar from time to time and have all sorts of metal stuff in her ear, underneath it all she is still the same song crafter who made a splash with her quietly desperate debut. The one-two punch of the opener and “New Skin” front-load the record with the most pronounced forays into new territory, luring in the listener with Torres at her most urgent and immediate. At no point is she any less personal than on her self-titled effort, and the passionate bellow of “The darkness fears what darkness knows, but if you never know the darkness then you’re the one who fears the most” nested somewhere between a wah-drenched guitar howl and a painfully steady rhythm section march in “New Skin’s” coda is a guaranteed source of chills down the spine. PJ Harvey is an obvious point of reference, as only PJ Harvey herself is the only part of the original PJ Harvey Trio absent on Sprinter, with the drummer additionally handling production duty and a number of other instrumental roles. However, Torres holds her own and doesn’t degenerate into a revivalist copycat.
Elsewhere in the track list, the amps are kept clean and the energy levels are toned down, allowing the exploration of other dynamic realms, some quite familiar. “A Proper Polish Welcome” sounds like something that could have come off the self-titled album, whilst “Son, You Are No Island” opts for a more sombre approach that gradually degenerates into a layered flurry of sound over a simplistic minor second guitar line. “Cowboy Guilt” experiments with distinctly analogue-sounding instrument manipulation and quick mini-breaks, leading to the Torres song equivalent of a 1950s retro-futuristic robot. “Ferris Wheel” drones along with its multifaceted game of appearances, the subtle electronic atmospherics making the seven minutes go down like no more than four. “Sprinter” and “The Harshest Light” dial up the intensity a bit, but it never gets as frenetic as the start of the record. And if there’s any lingering doubt as to the quality of Torres’s song craft, “The Exchange” wraps up the record with a universally interpretable display of Existenzangst driven by a fear of decay. Whilst the sample size may be small, Torres closers appear to be a class bunch, and what “The Exchange” may lack in the dark impulsiveness of “Waterfall” it more than makes up in its cold, shattered worldview.
Sprinter is an important step in Torres’s career, as she confidently expands her musical horizons instead of blindly rehashing her debut or falling into a shaky sophomore slump. The horizon expansion leads to a curious phenomenon, where an artificial rift appears between the easily accessible grunge influenced tracks and the calmer, openly introverted material, requiring some “grow time” for most of the album to connect. This makes for an interesting contrast with her homogeneous debut, which for the most part was lacking in immediate standouts but also “clicked” faster. Nevertheless, Sprinter is one hell of an album I can see myself coming back to for a long time, as the songs are sincere and deeply personal whilst the dynamic spread makes for as varied an exploration of the patch of musical turf Torres chose as possible. Recommended.