In Brief: A smart, rhythmic, and addictive pop album from an artist I had mistakenly pigeonholed as something entirely different. This seems like the type of record that was designed to shake off preconceived notions, and it does a darn good job of that.
I should have learned by now to never judge an artist by the one place I’ve seen that artist’s name in the past. Which is not to say that I’d judged Brooke Fraser negatively from the one song of hers I had heard before digging into one of her solo albums. The song in question, “Hosanna”, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard if you set foot in a church that had a contemporary worship band on any given Sunday in 2008 or 2009, is made of sturdy stuff. I like it. It was quite popular for a while there, but I didn’t hear it get run into the ground as much as some other massive worship anthems do, so I never got tired of it like I tend to with your average Chris Tomlin song. Fraser was just a name on an overhead slide that I associated with that song; it came out of a collaboration between her and the Australian collective Hillsongs, who are know for cranking out tons of stuff that follows that same general template – rock-oriented enough to be modern, but generally slow-paced and pensive enough to inspired raised hands across several generations as it unfolds over the course of six or eight minutes. I wasn’t really in the mood to seek out more of the same, and I assumed that Fraser’s wheelhouse was generally that sort of thing.
Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. Apparently she’s a bit of a pop star in her native New Zealand, and if you look her up on Wikipedia, you’ll find nary a mention of her connection to Hillsongs. I suppose I can name my fair share of American artists who become known abroad for doing something out of their ordinary routine that isn’t what I’d consider representative of their sound. Brutal Romantic, Fraser’s latest album, is apparently a bit of a departure even for those who have followed her solo career up to this point. I don’t know what most of her material sounded like before, quite honestly, but on this record I’m hearing a lot of smartly arranged, beat and vibe-heavy pop music, and a lot of reflections on the uneasy relationship between beauty and pain, affection and aggression, stuff like that. It’s spiritual in the sense that it’s soulful, but if you’re gonna go searching for God or Jesus in these songs, you’re gonna have to read between the lines, because the focus is very much on how humans relate to their world, their technology, and the other humans around them. I find that sort of thing intriguing, personally. So lyrically, this one’s right up my alley.
Musically, Brutal Romantic is the result of an artist who was used to writing songs on a guitar or piano pushing herself outside of that comfort zone, and allowing songs to form around programmed rhythms or mother bits of laptop wizardry. This makes some of its biggest pop songs surprisingly minimal when you analyze the ingredients underneath, realizing that much of a song might be just a beat and her voice and some ambient effects. Live instrumentation is still present to breathe life into many of these songs – despite all the machinery, it still feels quite human and vulnerable throughout. Often times I’m reminded of artists like Lorde or Feist who excel at making a lot out of a little. (Fraser left a bit of a raspy edge on some of her performances here, which is surprising at first but which also reminds me a great deal of Feist.) On the poppier end of the scale, occasionally she’ll bring to mind Chvrches or even Lights. It’s definitely a far cry from what I expected, in the best possible way. While Brutal Romantic isn’t a particularly long record and it does seem to spin off on to a few unrelated and not fully explored tangents in its back half, I do find myself listening to it quite often due to how strong its front half is. Even at her moodiest and mellowest when it’s just synths or strings and not much else, the arrangements are intriguing and the record never wears out its welcome. It’s the kind of record that makes me wish I’d given the artist a chance much earlier on. (So I guess I’ve got a back catalog to explore when I’m done here.)
“I love your projection, but I don’t love you.” Now there’s an opening line that demands your attention. It’s delivered acapella, and Brooke’s voice is purposefully raspy and unpolished here (though perhaps there’s a bit of digital distortion applied), as if to make this song’s uncomfortable truths about what love isn’t impossible for us to ignore. Set to a minimal and yet somehow harsh and pounding beat, she sings of wanting everything a person has to offer, but she simply uses them up until she is bored of them, and never offers anything in return – she’s basically portraying her interpretation of a sociopath. It’s made creepier by the chorus of voices that chimes in, “Psychosocial!” during the repetitive chorus. Add a few splashes of piano and some dissonant sound effects to that stone cold groove, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a chilling instant classic that makes no apologies for its stark exploration of human selfishness.
While the previous song described some rather reprehensible attitudes, nothing about it was outright violent. This song, while its groove might be a little more easygoing (think early 90s club music, maybe the sort of thing you might hear as the backdrop to remixed nature sounds or chanting monks or something), uses nature as a metaphor for human conflict. She describes herself as a thunderstorm appearing on the horizon, ready to rumble if you’ll forgive the pun. All she needs is another storm to collide with, and BAM! “Scorched earth, burnt skin.” This song is deceptive, both in terms of how easily it gets your head bobbing so that you don’t notice the electric war brewing underneath, and in terms of how it uses its verse as the main hook while its chorus is subdued, feeling almost like a background vocal simply repeating the title of the song, without a lead vocal to give it context. Not until the third time through the chorus dooes that lead vocal actually show up: “Air, it bends/Then it breaks/But we’re holding our ground/First the light/First the light/Then the sound.”
3. Start a War
There are a heck of a lot of royalty metaphors over the next two songs, which may be one of the reasons why Lorde comes to mind so easily. (The hypnotic grooves are the other reason.) There’s a smattering of sampled vocal bits at the beginning of this song, and some menacing bass throughout, that also bring Chvrches to mind, though Fraser isn’t trying to reach for the same full-on danceable synthpop heights here – she’s going for something a little slower and more anthemic. The lyrics, which contain such juicy tidbits as “Black words in golden speech” and “Can you smell the blood that’s in the air?” make me wonder if she was in the middle of binge-watching Game of Thrones when she wrote this, but despite her battle cry shaking the skies around her, there’s a pause for reflection when the bridge of the song drops the title: “If you’re gonna start a war/You better know the choice you made is one worth fighting for.” That’s a hint that just maybe, the act of rushing in to reclaim an old throne, all gung-ho with swords drawn, could have been a mistake.
4. Kings & Queens
The album’s lead single – which Brooke has mentioned was chosen as a bit of an olive branch to not scare off her existing fans (which the opening songs on this album may well do if taken out of context), is a much cheerier anthem, leading off immediately with a sunny, energetic chorus that keeps up the whole “taking back the kingdom” thing, but puts a much more personal and positive spin on it. It’s almost too obvious and convenient of a mood swing at first – I think the song’s totally catchy and I enjoy it, but the sudden laying down of the sword and finding some sort of peaceful path to enlightenment seems out of place in the narrative arc that this album seems to have taken thus far. Perhaps she really needed this one in order to not scare her record label too much.
Faring much better in the whole “positivity” department is this song, which isn’t as immediately “hooky” as the preceding tracks, but which has slowly won me over with its moody, shimmering guitars and its exhortation of “You’ve got so much soul, you’ve got to get out and prove it to yourself”. What could be a very generic, motivational anthem becomes something a little more special as Brooke actually commits to the metaphor of a broken heart, exploring what it means for that machinery to kick back into motion after lying dormant: “Vena cava, veins/Broken valves and vows/Feel the blood rush back /Feel the blood rush out.” There’s a tone of sisterly encouragement here, which works best because you can tell from the lyrics that she empathizes with the pain. The imagery of the heart not just as the seat of human emotion, but as a living, breathing muscle providing its lifeblood to the rest of the body is an interesting contrast with the blood that signified death and destruction just a few songs ago. Real human hearts aren’t pretty, but they get the job done if we take good care of them.
6. Brutal Romance
Fraser’s classical side comes out on the title track, reminding me for the first time that she shares a first name and a few musical sensibilities with Brooke Waggoner. In Fraser’s case, it’s a little less whimsical and more dramatic, but both have a few songs that would fit comfortably into the “baroque pop” genre. Here, the classical instrumentation (mostly a horn section, though there’s some tranquil piano midway through the song) seems to ooze into the listener’s consciousness, as if surveying the now-smoldering remains of some tragedy. As I believe all title tracks should, this one sheds light on both the theme of the album and its cover art, conjuring up images of sculptors and poets from centuries ago who have tried to make some sense out of the incongruous mix of love and violence that seems to motivate the human race. Her knack for wordplay is quite notable in this one: “Sculpted explosions/Histories unfold/Our Jackson Pollocked earth turns/A silent witness.” As vast of a history as this song might be trying to take in, there’s something personal in that “spinning slow dance”, and I think what she might be trying to communicate is that violence or abuse can easily be mistaken for love, in the sense that we can very easily hurt or take advantage of the people we claim to care about. The “brutality” seems to be represented by the drums that come marching right into the song midway through, bringing it from quiet reflection to a place of fervent madness, and then backing away just as suddenly for one final, reserved chorus.
7. Je Suis Pret
There’s a part of me that still thinks it’s a bit gratuitous to drop random bits of French into an otherwise English-language song. Even though I’ve picked up bits and pieces of the language over the years (mostly from listening to Arcade Fire, who has a legitimate reason to do the bilingual thing from time to time), it still sounds a bit pretentious when other singers attempt it. Here, titling a song after a French phrase which translates to “I am ready”, and then including the actual words “I am ready” as part of that very same chorus hook, seems to defeat the entire purpose. That’s not to say the song doesn’t have its subtle charms. It’s one of the more mellow and textured offerings on the album, and thus an easy song to overlook at first, but I like how it calmly flows by, like a tranquil river, as Brooke faces a storm growing in the distance (nice parallel to “Thunder”, I suppose) and stands with solemn assurance that she has found her place of rest and healing that can’t be upset by whatever challenges are to come. I really shouldn’t be so distracted by the language gimmick, but the song would still communicate everything it needs to without that. (And yes, I’m aware that she dropped “tableau vivant” into “Psychosocial”. It wasn’t redundant there.)
8. Magical Machine
While I welcome something a little more upbeat to break up the somewhat sleepy haze of this album’s back half, I’m not quite sure that a chirpy ode to technology is really what we needed at this point. Taken by itself, this song has its quirky charms. It’s driven by these campy little electronic sounds that I can only describe as “robot bleeps”, the syncopated rhythm keeps things light and upbeat, and overall she sounds more youthful and playful than anywhere else on the album… which may be exactly why the song doesn’t seem to fit. This is where Lights comes to mind, due to the “girlish” nature of the song. The lyrics are quite goofy and more than a bit random: “I’m your MRI/Show you what’s going on inside/I’m your ATM/Take what you like, my supply won’t end/I’m your MP3/I get sad when you don’t pay for me/I’m your IED/Carry me very carefully.” (Regarding that MP3 thing: I first heard this on Spotify and then later bought the CD, so… we cool?) I think the point she’s trying to make here is that we take technology and its various conveniences for granted, and there may be some sort of a parallel between this and “Psychosocial” commenting on how we use and discard people. But all the same, it’s technology. Personify it all you want; I don’t think I’m supposed to feel guilty for seeing it as a tool and nothing else. Until mankind invents the Cylons or something, I just don’t see why this is an issue. (For a much better commentary on the relationship between humans and their magical inventions, go check out Vienna Teng‘s “Landsailor”.)
9. New Histories
I get a bit of an 80s vibe from these last few songs – not so much in a “rubbery new wave dance-pop” sort of way, but more in a “chilled out, keyboard-driven slow dance” sort of way. Cyndi Lauper singing “Time After Time”, that sort of thing. This may be one of the most personal songs of the bunch, as it depicts a woman, confused in the aftermath of her lover leaving her, unable to tell the man from the monster. “Blind man on a broken beam/Sharks circling under/Fine frenzies and rosy scenes/I don’t know which you are to me.” You can imagine her sitting up late at night, the clock ticking away as she pines for his return. The chorus simply repeats “And I wait, and I wait” over and over – it’s a good mood-setter, but it gets a bit tedious when there’s nothing else to add to it later like “Thunder” did. As in “Je Suis Pret”, I like the mournful guitars and the synths bubbling underneath. But this song feels like it’s missing an ingredient to really drive home its uneasy mixture of hope and sadness.
10. New Year’s Eve
The record ends on its most minimal piece, with the synthesizers on their most “cosmic” setting, playing one lonely chord at a time, letting each one echo off into the night as Brooke ponders the noisy and chaotic year that’s about to end. Where you might expect a bit of resolution, with the two lovers laying down their weapons and coming to a truce, instead you get an uneasy retreat into solitude: “It’s New Year’s Eve, babe/And I’d really like to be alone.” There’s a brief choral lift near the end of the song, and a glimmer of hope as she declares “Tonight I’m gonna find something true.” But it’s still a surprisingly introverted and anticlimactic way to end an album that’s been all about relationships and trying to bring them to a state of peace.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Start a War $1.50
Kings & Queens $1
Brutal Romance $1.25
Je Suis Pret $.75
Magical Machine $.75
New Histories $.75
New Year’s Eve $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: