Review Summary: quiet love and creamy coffee
Madeline Kenney’s take on indie pop is at once clinically precise and immersively dreamlike, an overall fortuitous combination that makes her latest album, Sucker’s Lunch
, a distinctly relaxing listen. Similarly to her last album Perfect Shapes
, Kenney’s inclination towards reverb-happy, dreamlike atmospheres is indispensable here, since every choice in its texture, lyrics and pacing feels so markedly deliberate that every second of music might as well be be accompanied by a page of an ongoing thesis on the interrelation between cognition and musical stimulus, Kenney being the qualified neuroscientist that she is. As it is, the album’s airy atmosphere confines Kenney’s more overbearing tendencies as a vocalist and songwriter to the realm of individual voicings, while her songs as a whole enjoy a feeling of relative levity. They never seem to go anywhere in particular, instead landing in a comfortable equilibrium where their ebb and flow is engaging enough not to demand a belaboured direction. A Madeline Kenney song doesn’t come to an end because anything in particular has been resolved, but because the thought process behind it has run its course and whatever remains is too self-aware to overstay its welcome. As such, she ends up in the vague ballpark of how St. Vincent might have turned out if she’d set herself to catering to dubiously independent metropolitan study cafés rather than stadiums and leather vendors; this brand of indie pop is blissed out enough to appeal to the spaciest of dream pop fans, while wistful enough to be a viable soundtrack for those looking for a more thought-provoking pop experience.
To this end, the introspective romanticism that makes for the album’s subject matter finds itself well explored here. For instance, Kenney’s rumination over the ins and outs of falling in love feels right at home with the wry weariness that waxes and wanes over the course of the lovely title track, a subtly beleaguered account of social double standards and coffee, carried by her voice with an ease that feels convincingly personal and refreshingly less emphatic than at other points in the album. As far as such moments are concerned, “White Light Window” is perhaps the album’s most successfully rousing offering; Kenney’s refrain as she pines over a particular memory of a particular someone may be carried by familiar melodies, but the strain in her performance feels very much her own. “Cut the Real” is more laid back; Kenney’s breathy vocals here are a natural counterpart to her the ultrachilled basslines that guide the song’s momentum. Similarly to Marika Hackman in her finer moments, Kenney’s phrasings are unobtrusive enough that the odd awkward lyric such as Yeah, I get it, you're the bad kids, I'm the grunt / If it wasn't my defense I'd start cussin’
barely registers as a blip on the song’s otherwise impeccable smoothness.
The same cannot be said for the album as a whole. Madeline Kenney is by no means the first vocalist to overstate the personal voice behind such otherwise banal lines as I like when they tell me what you're like / What do you think they say about me?
by forcing them into concertedly unpredictable rhythms and melodies, but she makes it such an obvious habit of it that it’s already something of an eye-roller by the time the album hits its mid-section. Perhaps in a different timeline this approach might have resulted in levels of contour and nuance approaching the upper echelons of the post-Bark Your Head Off, Dog
indieverse, but with Kenney’s rather plain lyricism behind them, these lines serve primarily to spotlight facets of the album that were hardly among its most convincing to begin with. “Be That Man” is the worst example of this, sabotaging a deliciously bluesy hook that dominates its chorus with a series of gender-politik clunkers that might have sounded vaguely edgy if this was the ‘90s and they were voiced by PJ Harvey. As it is, the track comes off as an awkward misfire that loses Kenney’s vaguely articulated point about hypocritical standards and the arbitrariness of gender roles in sheer inelegance of lines as uninspiring as I could come back and be the same / No one would turn their head / They know the game
This song is representative of the less flattering aspects of the Madeline Kenney experience; sometimes her explorative fondness for precision is fresh and engaging, but it is occasionally presented in a way more indicative of ham-fisted naivety. Fortunately, the latter is rarely dominant, and Sucker’s Lunch
is rightly confident in the strength of its dreamy meditation. Kenney knows her craft well enough that the occasional overly firm stroke of her pen fails to compromise the album’s rewarding atmosphere too severely, and for what it’s worth, her hit rate is a tad more consistent here than it was on Perfect Shapes
. It won’t be the most memorable outing you hear this year, but if you’re reading this in anything approaching a wistful funk, there’s a decent chance Sucker’s Lunch
might be exactly what your mood calls for.