Artist: Regina Spektor
Album: Remember Us to Life
In Brief: Song-for-song, this is a more consistently well-written album than her last one, with more of a unified feel from track to track, but leaving room for a few fun surprises as well. Regina hasn’t totally reinvented her sometimes-cutesy, sometimes-creepy piano pop style, but she’s certainly honed her craft a bit since we last heard from her.
Regina Spektor is a bit of an anomaly, and I’m sure she likes it that way. The Soviet-born, New York-raised singer/songwriter seems to enjoy pulling together little bits of whimsy and tragedy in a way that only she can, with an idiosyncratic touch that makes her stick out from other piano-based solo artists in the indie-sphere, while also being such a darn good songwriter that she ably fends off criticisms of her music being all gimmickry. While I have yet to listen to any of her discography any further back than 2009’s Far, I felt like I got a glimpse of a kindred spirit on her 2012 album What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, which to be honest wasn’t all that cohesive of an album, but it served as a great introduction to her personality for a late-comer to the party like me. During the time since then, she’s contributed the theme song to Orange is the New Black and a George Harrison cover to the Kubo and the Two Strings soundtrack, and taken some time off to have a baby, among other things. The hiatus seems to have done her some good, since when she re-emerged late last year with Remember Us to Life, I was immediately drawn into the album. It’s certainly less concerned with oddball mouth sounds and unexpected genre jumps than some of her past work, yet it strikes a pretty good balance between variety and consistency that wasn’t true of Cheap Seats. Song for song, I feel like I’m having more of a fun time just taking in the sounds, and puzzling over her lyrics, than I did in the past.
Of course, the first thing I puzzled over with this album was the title itself. Remember Us to Life. That seems syntactically correct, and yet cryptic at the same time. The lyrics to these 11 songs don’t provide a title drop at any point, at least not that I’ve picked up on so far, so my best guess is that it’s about the act of remembrance giving life to someone or something whose legacy might have otherwise withered away. It’s a theme that comes up on a few songs, especially later in the album where she seems preoccupied with themes of mortality and outliving one’s usefulness. Elsewhere, the tension between communism and capitalism seems to lurk behind a few songs – and look, I know I’m making this record sound rather morbid, but there are some cheery and fantastical songs to balance out the mix, too. Overall, I’d say there’s a good balance between the relaxing and the unsettling here. In her more pensive moments, Regina can make you feel like you’re having tea with a longtime friend, and neither bullies nor demons nor governments nor economic crises can tear apart the bond you’ve found with this special person. It’s the anticipation that comes from the unexpectedly eerie moments in her songs that makes it all work for me – giving the calmer and cutesier moments a reason for being instead of just feeling like harmless fluff. It’s a good mix.
Instrumentally, aside from the programmed beats on a few of the more aggressive tracks and the string arrangements on a few of the more dramatic ones, this is a piano-based album through and through, as a lot of Regina’s work is, and after a while, the familiarity of her instrument can start to work against the album, making it harder for otherwise cleverly written songs to stand out. I don’t remember feeling that sort of fatigue as Cheap Seats came to a close, but then again, that felt like a much shorter album (despite having the same number of songs) and I definitely prefer the less scatterbrained approach here. While the melodies that she comes up with her instrument can be fanciful and surprising at times, for the most part they’re in service of the song and not necessarily designed to show off instrumental virtuosity. Of course the catchiest, poppiest songs on a record like this are going to catch my attention first, but I think it’s noteworthy that the lyrics really come first on this record, and I don’t get that nagging feeling when I start to pick apart its catchier songs that they’re just there for the fun hooks and nothing else. They actually turn out to be among the album’s most meaningful. Nearly all of these songs seem to come from an outside-the-box perspective of some sort, and I value that in a songwriter, especially in a genre where simple romantic melodrama and a few cutesy vocal affectations are what a lot of artists would probably settle for. Regina just plain tries harder. The results aren’t always amazing, but I’m always left with the reminder that no one but her could have written these songs.
1. Bleeding Heart
While on Cheap Seats, it took a few tracks for me to fully warm up to Spektor’s style, it’s instant love right out of the gate with this song. She offers kinship to a lonely, wounded soul here, the kind of reject who got stuck at the back of the bus and probably had to sit by herself in the school cafeteria, hoping that person can find confidence and healing in their adult life. Spektor’s playful piano style morphs into more of a bouncy, programmed pop style here, though it’s worth noting that she seamlessly segues back and forth between this and a few peaceful solo piano segues, as well as a rousing, rock-oriented bridge leading up to the song’s tranquil ending. The way she sings “Never, never mind, bleeding heart, bleeding heart” is more than infectious enough that I don’t mind the repetition at all. It’s like a mantra that the misfit is reciting to herself, trying to shove all that pain into the past where it belongs and not letting it get triggered when she sees someone else get treated like an outcast in the present. Yet in Regina’s expression of a hope for healing, there seems to also be a hint that the bleeding heart should be minded, that it can be a good thing that gives this person compassion for others and a way to advocate for them until they can find their own voices. In that sense, the song is reclaiming what used to be an insult and wearing it as a badge of pride. And I adore Regina for doing that.
2. Older and Taller
A playful, syncopated beat, and a piano bouncing along with some cutesy string riffs here and there would seem to indicate that Regina is up to her old tricks. I have no problem with that. Here she’s examining the topic of aging, but kind of looking backwards through the telescope, remembering someone as being older and taller before than they are now. How that works out in a physical sense is beyond me, but I like the notion of a person recapturing their youthful spirit that the song seems to be driving at. Her wordplay is at its best here as she tries to describe the soul-sucking drudgery that was making the person feel old before they took a stand against it: “And you retired just in time/You were about to be fired/For being so tired from hiring the ones/Who will take your place.” The chorus poses a challenge to the old notion that we should “seize the day” while we’re young because those are the best years we’ll ever have, as she opines: “‘Enjoy your youth’ sounds like a threat/But I will anyway.”
3. Grand Hotel
Regina mixes the opulent and the macabre quite cleverly in this song, which on the surface seems like a homespun tale about an old-timey hotel where well-to-do socialites gathered back in the day, but she pretty quickly reveals that underneath it as “a tunnel that leads straight to hell”, and much of the song, despite its delightful, speedy-waltz sort of mood, turns out to be about the devils and demons that would rise up from the netherworld to make the hotel their playground. Their rituals involving “piercing fair maidens’ chests with their horns” and so forth should be alarming and disturbing, and yet the song flows so effortlessly back and forth between these grisly events, and all the amenities and activities available to the guests like playing tennis and swimming in the pool, that the song comes across as perversely delightful instead. That couldn’t have been an easy feat to pull off. Kudos, Regina.
4. Small Bill$
Perhaps the most haunting song on the record is also its catchiest, and rightfully one of its lead singles. The beat has a bit of urban swagger to it, and the eerie “la la la” refrain, with the vocal melody jumping up and down at odd intervals, has just enough sass to it that I’m tempted to think it’s a crime if this song doesn’t get sampled by some clever hip-hop artist hoping to expand on its message. Regina casts a pretty scornful eye on capitalism gone wild here, with her ominous tale of a man who had spent his life savings one nickel and dime at a time, not realizing that all of his momentary pursuits were gradually sucking away any hope he had at a meaningful future. The music video takes the creepiness even further, pulling together communist and capitalist imagery in an unsettling way that probably only an artist born in the USSR and raised in the USA could dream up. Once again she strikes the perfect balance between haunting, thought-provoking, and downright infectious. I can’t get enough of this song.
5. Black and White
The record stumbles for the first time here, ironically with another one of its singles. I can’t really figure out what made this one such a standout that it was chosen as such, since to me it sounds like a rather average mid-tempo ballad, with dull and unimaginative percussion that just seems to limp on by. The strings are sadly pretty, Regina’s high notes are sadly pretty, the lyrics about looking at old black and white photographs and lamenting an innocence that will never return are sadly pretty… but it all feels a bit rote and repetitive, compared to the way multiple emotions would clash with each other on some of the earlier tracks. I really struggle to get through this one, and it’s not even four minutes long.
6. The Light
Now here’s what I want from a tender Regina Spektor ballad. I don’t mind if the instrumentation is mellow and simple. I just want it to flow well and make me feel something. This song succeeds in that department, letting a more fluid piano melody and a cautiously optimistic disposition carry it through, with minimal distractions to weigh it down. There’s grace and wisdom here, as she seems overwhelmed by a lack of experience or knowledge, yet confident with the peace that arrives as she opens her eyes to the new day, as if sleeping on it will give her more clarity. The line “I know the morning is wiser than the evening” is a standout here, and as it turns out, that’s an old Russian proverb that aptly communicates the wisdom of not making impulsive decisions until your common sense has had the chance to catch up. A casual listener might not notice a lot of difference between “Black and White” and this song, in terms of melody or performance. But to me, there’s a world of difference, with this one being the clear winner of the two.
7. The Trapper and the Furrier
It seems there’s got to be at least one song on each Regina Spektor record where the sheer sound of it is designed to give you the heebie-jeebies. On Cheap Seats, it was “Open”, which turned out to be one of my favorite tracks. This time Regina’s not using ugly gasps for air to make us uncomfortable; rather, it’s the looming sense of dread in the dark melody she’s come up with, which is disorienting at first because it’s just her voice with no other instrumentation to anchor it, and then when the piano comes in, rampaging back and forth between the same two chords, it sort of makes sense but it’s still far from a conventional pop song progression. Each verse is an allegory detailing the plotting and scheming of two business partners – the trapper and the furrier, the owner and the manager, the lawyer and the pharmacist, as they survey the vast financial empire they’ve built together and demonstrate a devil-may-care attitude toward the people they’ve exploited in order to get there. (If the last verse doesn’t make you think of Martin Shkreli and his highly punchable smug face, you’re a stronger person than I.) The chorus seems to offer some respite at first with Regina more calmly musing “What a strange, strange world, we live in/Where the good are damned and the wicked forgiven”, but as it ramps up to a cry of “More, more, more, MORE!” your hairs will probably be standing on end by the time she segues into the next verse. I love the hyper-dramatic, unconventional nature of this song – it seems better suited for a dramatic stage play than a radio playlist, and it may be the album’s most striking reminder of the emotional range she’s capable of.
This is the only song on the back half of the album that I’d even remotely consider “upbeat”. It’s not beat-heavy in the way that “Bleeding Heart” and “Small Bill$” were, but it gets reasonably frenetic as it builds from simple, fast-paced piano to a climax full of drums and strings and whatnot. It seems to be a song about not being able to calm your mind, and there’s an air of tragedy to its story of a woman not being able to shout louder than her inner demons and feeling like “It’s everybody’s moment except yours.” Yet for all of the drama, the song takes a weirdly vaudevillian turn near the end as Regina picks up the pace a bit, and even scats for a brief moment in the coda. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that, but I enjoy the song’s nervous energy overall.
Perhaps the most personal and heartbreaking track on the record is this pensive six-minute piece, which seems designed specifically so that you’ll stop and take notice of how long it is, and take the time to really soak in how Regina feels, as she laments feeling like a relic of a lost era, a manuscript with missing pages that no one reads anyway. As with some of the other ballads on this record, there are subtle contributions from stringed instruments and percussion, but the piano is really the star of the show, and on this particular track it’s produced in such a way that you can feel the huge empty space around Regina as she plays, as if she’s in a concert hall with no one in attendance. This lends a bit of depth to the melancholy high notes and the stormy low notes alike. I like what’s going on here texturally, but I am tempted to feel like the song is starting to run out of both lyrical and musical ideas somewhere around minute four or five. Maybe that’s an indictment on me as a listener, looking for something more easily digestible and too easily growing impatient with a piece that doesn’t fit into pop song parameters. But its length makes it feel like a bit of a coda to end the record, except that this isn’t actually the end, and I feel like that ever-so-slightly works against the listener’s willingness to engage with the last few tracks.
10. Sellers of Flowers
I love the rich imagery in this song. It’s gloomy imagery, to be sure, but it’s vivid storytelling that sprung from an unconventional moment of curiosity, as Regina recalls being a young girl, seeing low-rent merchants buying up discarded roses and trying to resell them to customers who had to rush home in the bitter winter weather to keep them alive long enough to be even halfway presentable as gifts to whoever they were meant for. She wonders who was the winner in that equation, because she can’t see it working out too well for any of the people involved, or the poor roses themselves, so she concludes “Who’s the winner? Only winter.” As in “The Trapper and the Furrier”, this might be an indictment of unchecked capitalism, in which the urge to compulsively buy something with only a fleeting value wins out over common sense. But then the music, which at times borders on a Disney-esque sort of curiosity in the midst of its haste to get home before frostbite sets in, has an ever-so-slight air of wonder and romanticism to it. You can sense the tug-of-war between the need to ask what happens to those poor flowers and the dawning realization eating away at her innocence, and the more optimistic part of her struggling to fight the cynicism regardless of the cold reality at work.
11. The Visit
The final song is a rather homespun and peaceful one, a simple tale of a woman welcoming a longtime friend into her home for a chat and perhaps some afternoon tea, just to catch up on all the years they’ve been apart and marvel at how quickly the time has flown by. You know those friends where, no matter how long you go in between visits, you always feel like you’re picking right up where you left off with them? This song has that warm sense of familiarity to it. And I appreciate the sense of warmth and safety that it adds at the end of a somewhat tumultuous and melancholy string of songs in the record’s back half. At the same time, I have to be honest and say it’s probably one of the least interesting tracks on the record to listen to. I appreciate a peaceful conclusion and all, but the dramatic, climactic stuff just does a lot more for me.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Bleeding Heart $2
Older and Taller $1.25
Grand Hotel $1.25
Small Bill$ $2
Black and White $.25
The Light $1.50
The Trapper and the Furrier $1.50
Sellers of Flowers $1.25
The Visit $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: