Review Summary: Up the mountain, but not without the occasional valley.
Regina Spektor possesses an undervalued trait that seems to be shared among some of the most resilient musical acts: the ability to consistently add new layers to a tried-and-true formula without having the foundation crumble. Refinement and reinvention are both essential components for artistic longevity, and Regina always seems to know precisely which direction to lean into and when
. She launched her career on an anti-folk platform, with 2004’s Soviet Kitsch
espousing her most abrasive and peculiar brand. However, by 2009’s Far
, she had figuratively dulled the blade in favor of broadening her potential audience; yet, at its heart, Far
was still spry and eclectic enough to separate her from most singer-songwriters in the scene. 2012’s What We Saw from the Cheap Seats
and 2016’s Remember Us To Life
saw her marry her witty eccentricities to more elegant, classically-influenced stylings. As Spektor continually molds her craft while toeing the line between comforting familiarity and sonic expansion, listeners have spent the better part of two decades marveling at her raw talent and her ability to sound fresh at every turn.
Following the longest gap between albums of her career, Regina Spektor’s eighth full-length release – Home, Before and After
– once again sees her subtly reshaping her art. This time, the music is decidedly more serious, erring away from idiosyncratic indie-pop and steering into more dramatic arrangements. We witness it on the record’s lead single, ‘Becoming All Alone Again’, as it soars to a massive orchestral arrangement while Spektor implores God – over a round of beers, of course – to do something about the world’s endless cycle of suffering: “I just want to ride / but this whole world, it makes me carsick / Stop the meter, sir – you have a heart, why don't you use it?” Spektor is rarely so forthright with her concerns – instead typically hiding them behind a layer of irony or a humorous quip – but on ‘Becoming All Alone Again’, the mood is both somber and urgent, as if her pleas are a last-ditch chance for humanity. Most of Home, Before and After
is similarly dark but also just as theatrical: ‘Coin’ depicts a desperate search for the meaning of life to a surging rhythm section, ‘Up the Mountain’ is mysterious in its prose (a downright trippy exploration into the depths of nature) but is otherwise a propulsive and unpredictable pop tune, and ‘One Man’s Prayer’ is narrated through soaring choruses from the perspective of a man who gradually demands more sinister levels of submission from his partner until he’s asking for complete and utter supremacy (“I just want some girl beneath my feet / To tell me I’m her king / And then beg me for a ring / And I want her to be afraid of me / And think that I might leave her”). Spektor has never been shy about tackling uncomfortable subject matter, but here the music intentionally swerves into that seriousness with elegant and well-orchestrated poignancy rather than the quirky, animated piano ballads that we’ve become accustomed to. Nowhere is this better illustrated than on ‘Spacetime Fairytale’, which may very well be the most purely epic
thing that Regina has ever put on record. At a sprawling nine minutes, it’s her longest track to-date – and every second of it is overflowing with rich, symphonic beauty. Harps and flutes give way to burgeoning strings and majestic brass during this lush odyssey, as it navigates space and time while slowly transforming from something of a child’s lullaby (“the fairy tale’s begun / so listen up my son”) to a bone-chilling omen (“pages burn but words return…you will learn
”). It feels like the crux of Home, Before and After
– this massive, swirling epicenter that pulls together all of the Regina’s best traits.
This might lead you to believe that Home, Before and After
is Spektor’s unquestioned magnum opus, but there are a few things holding it back from ascending to her discography’s gold-plated throne. The first noticeable issue is atmospheric and tonal inconsistency. While Regina is known and loved for her expansive artistic palette, the aesthetics on display here don’t always mesh in an agreeable way. ‘What Might’ve Been’ comes to mind immediately, with a fun/lighthearted demeanor that might have been a natural fit on her other works but ends up sounding at-odds with the other material here. The song is noticeably out of place on what is easily her most serious endeavor yet, and because it lacks any real emotional/lyrical weight compared to the majority of the album, it ultimately becomes expendable. It’s also difficult to see ‘Raindrops’ – which samples the chorus from B.J. Thomas’ 1969 single ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’ – really striking a chord with anyone outside of the most rabid Spektor superfans who’ve been keeping tabs on her rarities and other incomplete works (Regina’s reimagining of the song dates back to 2008). The second and perhaps more pressing roadblock to perfection is that some of these songs (especially outside of the singles) simply fail to leave a lasting impression. Even the penultimate ‘Lovelogy’ (another classic Regina tune that’s been given a fresh coat of studio wax) lacks a strong enough hook to justify its mythical status within her discography’s lore. The closer, ‘Through a Door’, is also one of her weaker curtain calls. While it admittedly falls much more in line with the record’s pervading aura, it ends things with an apathetic shrug – there is no climax, overarching lyrical resolution, or other crystallizing juncture to truly solidify it as a concluding or unifying moment; it merely waxes poetic about “what makes a home” and then peters out. On a rather slender ten song tracklist, these weak links begin to add up quickly.
Regardless, Home, Before and After
is still a strong addition to Spektor’s discography. It successfully adds another wrinkle to her sound with the addition of sweeping string sections, majestic brass horns, and epic flourishes. It also can’t be overstated just how brilliant this album’s pinnacles are, with ‘Becoming All Alone Again’, ‘Up the Mountain’, and ‘Spacetime Fairytale’ standing out as particularly dazzling career highlights. Even ‘SugarMan’ deserves an honorable mention as one of the most lush and mesmerizing songs that Regina has ever crafted – a dreamy oasis in the album’s midsection that is downright transportive. It’s easy to wonder what might have been had these pinnacles been surrounded by a better supporting cast, but that doesn’t rob Home, Before and After
of what it does possess in spades: individual moments of well-orchestrated brilliance that will undoubtedly find themselves on a future Greatest Hits