Album: Primal Heart
In Brief: Kimbra’s third record doesn’t lay on the nostalgia and experimentation quite as thick as her last two, but it’s still a unique and worthwhile modern pop/R&B record, in its own low-key way.
Kimbra Johnson, just in case you’re not familiar with her, is a singing and songwriting prodigy from New Zealand who clearly deserves to be better known for her idiosyncratic take on modern pop and R&B than she is for guesting on that one Gotye song more than half a decade ago. (At this point it’s probably best not to keep Gotye up every time I review one of Kimbra’s records, but it’s notable that she’s managed to get three full albums out in to the world before he’s dropped so much as a follow-up single to Making Mirrors.) I found her to be equally adept at big, fun, rhythmic songs full of live looping as she was at slow-burning torch songs on her debut Vows (a record for which I still can’t decide if the original or US version is better), before she took a pretty hard left into mind-bogglingly layered “deep cut” R&B on some of the tracks from her second album, 2014’s The Golden Echo. It’s been four years since that record, and Kimbra’s taken her sweet time on the follow-up, Primal Heart, even dropping the funky single “Sweet Relief” in 2016 before changing direction and deciding it wasn’t a good fit for the album. A barrage of singles and a pushed-back release date followed, and finally in April of 2018, her third album Primal Heart could be heard in full. It’s not the kind of record that makes as big of a splash as her last two, but it still nudges her into new territory while trimming some of the excesses of her previous works. That’s mostly a good thing.
What continues to be notable about Kimbra as she matures in her craft is that she’s every bit as much of a songwriter, producer, and tinkerer as she is a singer. This might not be 100% obvious at first glance, especially when reading the credits, which could almost give off a “too many cooks” sort of vibe due to the sheer number of producers listed. Constant among them are John Congelton and Kimbra herself, at least giving the impression that there were some steady guiding hands despite the revolving door of guests helping to shape the album, which at one point bizarrely includes Skrillex among the list of names who sat behind the boards. But this isn’t a radical change in sound for Kimbra, nor is it a desperate grab at mainstream relevance – you’re not going to hear overbearing dubstep wubs or obligatory rap features or anything like that on this record. You will hear some interesting forays into minimalism, perhaps even a bit of modern hip-hop influence, filtered through Kimbra’s usually lens of admiration for the music of our youth (which, for those keeping score, would be the early 90s and late 2000s – my college years were apparently the formative years of her childhood when popular music was making its first real imprints on her personality). At times, I’ll admit to being mildly disappointed by the intentional scaling back of her sound, and it’s weird to find myself saying that now considering how weirded out I was my The Golden Echo‘s maximalism on a few tracks. I’ve become a bit nostalgic for that album in my own way over the years despite my initial misgivings, so who knows, maybe a few of the tracks that seem underwhelming to me now due to their more subdued beats or melodies might eventually grow on me. There is plenty here that I enjoy a great deal, though, and both lyrically and musically, Primal Heart throws enough curveballs to ensure that it stays in heavy rotation for me this summer, even in spite of a few tracks I might consider skippable.
If there’s a lyrical thread running throughout Primal Heart, it might be the pursuit of fame and how that can change a person’s heart, mind, and gut instincts over the years. This isn’t one of those records that bemoans how it sucks to be famous, because last I checked, Kimbra hasn’t reached quite the level of international fame as some of her contemporaries in the genre. Songs that might initially appear to be biting off more than she can chew in terms of analyzing her own brush with fame actually turn out to be more darkly analytical when you pull them apart, and I think that’s the hidden genius of this record – it sounds more straightforward than it turns out to be when you really take the time to delve into it. Songs that I might first describe as “minimal” or easygoing end up having their own really interesting layers; they just don’t jump out at you all at once in a big neon blur like some of The Golden Echo‘s wilder tracks did. Things do get a bit sleepy in the back half of the record due to it lacking the final, up-tempo push of a song like “Warrior” or “Nobody But You”; that and a few songs I’m tempted to describe as disposable are the main reason I’ve ranked it the lowest of her three albums thus far. But I’m finding more to appreciate even in my least favorite tracks on this album as I digest it more carefully. So if you’re a fan of unabashedly poppy music that still comes across as the artful compositions of its creator and not as a figurehead for making label executives richer, you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy about Primal Heart, just as I have.
1. The Good War
For all of The Golden Echo‘s excesses, I found it interested that it opened with “Ten Heat”, a seemingly subdued ballad that became unexpectedly intense further in. It felt like the sort of thing that would be a deep cut for most artists, yet Kimbra was quite deliberate about putting it at the top of the album. “The Good War” repeats that tactic for this album, starting off slowly but intriguingly, with deep, thumping bass, a minimal rhythm track, and some bits of vocal percussion. The lyrics walk a strange line between surreal and downright Biblical, depicting what may well be a battle for the singer’s soul, in which she’s determined to keep fighting for freedom, but knows that she can hear both heaven and hell calling her home. Which will win? The slow burn approach really helps to amp up the drama as the song gets deeper in, without it ever feeling too overly dramatic. By the time you get to the vintage synth solo in the bridge, it’s pretty clear that this is no ordinary R&B ballad. It’s one of the finest tracks on Primal Heart, and despite all the singles released in advance of the album, I’m actually quite happy that she chose to save this one as a surprise.
2. Top of the World
Yup, this is the Skrillex-produced track. Even though it’s not the title track, this weird little drone of a song may be the one that best fits the title Primal Heart sonically. I actually found it a bit off-putting at first, thinking that the minimal, distorted percussion was trying a bit too hard to mimic some sort of a hip-hop trend, and not finding a whole lot to get excited about in the mostly spoken-word lyrics, which appeared to be your typical brag about a slow, hard-fought rise to the top of the celebrity food chain. But the melodic chant that serves as the song’s main hook (on account of it being one of the few bits of the song that are actually sung) really sticks in my head: “On my knees, all my life I’ve been sold a chase/Hustling hope for dollars, try cope a day.” Maybe it’s a bit awkwardly phrased, but as I paid more attention to this and some of the other lyrics, I began to realize it was more about the futility of trying to stay at the top, rather than the rags-to-riches type boast it seems to be at first. What’s amazing is how much of an earworm this thing turned out to be despite my initial distaste for it – her delivery ranges from “slow and menacing whisper” to “girlish schoolyard chant” and yet I can’t get enough of it now that I’ve grown used to the song’s oddball approach. In that sense, it’s a lot like “90s Music” from The Golden Echo, in terms of how it seemed like Kimbra was selling out to modern-day trends at first, only for more depth to be revealed once I got over the way melody was being downplayed in favor of the rhythm and weird production tricks.
3. Everybody Knows
When considering my very top picks from each of Kimbra’s albums, it’s interesting that this time around, instead of going with a big, splashy dance number like “Cameo Lover” or “Miracle”, instead it’s another slow-burning ballad that has really jumped out at me. The muted keyboards and clink-clanking percussion at the beginning of this track make it seem like it’s going to be more of an introverted affair, but once the rhythm track really kicks in at the second verse, the song reveals itself to be quite seductively syncopated, shimmying along in 6/8 as Kimbra makes good on her threat to out a former lover’s abusive behaviors to the rest of the world. This is another track that reveals itself to be deeper than it seems on the surface. Breakup songs about how an ex did you wrong are commonplace in the genre, but this one implies that there was a power dynamic in the relationship that allowed this man to take advantage of her naievete at the time – she admits in the chorus, “I was young and gullible, but baby I grew/And now the whole world’s watching you.” This reminds me of what Alanis Morissette did with “Hands Clean” a decade and a half ago, just in a different genre, and perfectly timed for the #MeToo movement. Whether Kimbra is actually coming forward as a victim herself or just sticking up for other women who have been and using a little creative license in the process, it’s significant that she’s making sure everybody knows, as this type of abuse can only really flourish in the darkness when potential future victims can’t see it coming. This track is notable for having an extended bridge section that pretty much lets the synths, percussion, and Kimbra’s vocal vamping just go nuts – you might consider it more of an outro since the song never actually returns to its chorus after that point. At first I was slightly bummed that the song didn’t have any more to say here, but I think it’s made the point that it really needs to by then, and I like that even though it’s pretty clearly a song about a serious issue, it also takes the time to remind us that Kimbra and her cohorts are geniuses in the studio.
4. Like They Do on the TV
I’m not really sure what Kimbra was trying to accomplish with this one. production-wise, it’s another interesting entry, starting out with eerie, wailing vocal samples shoved into the background, and a bit outsized bass supporting a subdued verse melody, before breaking into a straightforward, breezy pop chorus. There’s some sort of a theme about becoming stronger than the previous generation as she grows older, which may be piggybacking on “Everybody Knows” in terms of how she’s now wise to the tricks she used to fall for. But the chorus seems too straightforward for its own good when it comes to idolizing the characters and/or celebrities whose lives she wants to emulate: “And we will go from nothing to incredible/Just like they do on the TV”. Unlike “Top of the World”, where I could eventually spot the subversive irony in what seemed at first to be a celebration of the excesses of extreme fame, I’m not picking up on any subtext here – this seems to be a legitimately starry-eyed view of fame as the cure for one’s problems. It’s mildly catchy, I suppose, and I’ll admit that my ears perk up at the sax solo that gets dropped in near the end of it. But let’s be honest – we’re getting to the point where reviving that old cheesy pop cliche, even with an ironic, knowing wink, is becoming a cliche in and of itself.
This has has a unique, bouncy quality to it that makes it stand out from the rest of the album, in mostly good ways. It seems a bit stilted at first, like it can’t quite figure out whether it wants to be more rigid or more syncopated, but the way Kimbra’s voice follows the “bounce” of the rhythm between each line of the verses gives it a playful sort of quality. If I were more well-versed in the R&B of the 90s, I’d be able to pinpoint some more specific influences, I’m sure – let’s just say that it makes me think of schoolgirls at recess playing hopscotch and jump rope, if that helps to set the mood at all. (Kimbra would have been that age when this sort of music is popular, so she’s got to be drawing on some childhood memories of her own, at least for the musical inspiration.) Lyrically, this song is pretty clearly about a grown-up situation, since Kimbra is reeling from a breakup and trying to figure out healthy ways to cope with it. Describing it as a recovery phase sort of implies that their romance was like a bad drug addiction, and now she’s in rehab. I feel like I don’t hear a lot of breakup songs that are actually about this phase, where a wounded lover’s heart is still stuck on someone, but their brain is telling them it’s wiser to move on – usually those songs appear to be written in the immediate aftermath when both the heart and head are just aching to have the person back, or else they’re so hurt that they want nothing to do with the person again, ever. This song is smart to recognize that wanting to be over someone, and recognizing that it’s best for their personal sanity to get to a point where they can say that they are, doesn’t immediately make it happen. It’s a process.
Of the singles released before the album, this was the first one to really catch my attention. If Kimbra’s gonna go minimal with her melodies and her approach to rhythm, this is probably one of the most striking ways to do it, building off of the early days when she used a fair amount of live looping in her recordings. The thump and tap of the rhythm almost sounds like it could be imitating a person’s breathing and heartbeat, while the eerie vocal samples providing a melodic hook in the background are distorted to the point where they almost resemble whale calls. Though the melody is repetitive almost to the point of monotony, the keyboards and synths do a good job of propelling the action forward from one stanza to the next, which pulls an interesting trick of making me excited for the drama that looms around the corner, even though this song never really rises above its initial groove to anything resembling a conventional climax. My interest in the song was mostly limited to its production, though. It managed to get lodged in my brain by way of sheer repetition, but as the thematic crux of the album, it kind of falls short a bit. It provides the record with its title as its chorus cries out, “Got as heart that’s primal!”, and I feel like Kimbra’s picked a compelling starting point as she explores “what it means to be human”, which for her seems to involve coming to terms with her own weaknesses and her stubborn tendency to live in denial of the truth. The lyrics spend a lot of time treading water here – the entire first verse only exists to tell us that there aren’t a lot of things she knows, but she knows one thing, and dang it, she’s gonna tell you that one thing that she knows! So the song carries with it a promise of imparting some hard-earned wisdom that it never quite seems to expound upon. The only line that really strikes me as profound here is the one I chose as my review title: “I’m a foreigner everywhere I roam.” That whole idea of having her feet planted in two worlds (originating in New Zealand and now trying to establish a career for herself in America), and not feeling quite at home in either place, would have been a much more specific and interesting point to start from. I’d say this song is still a total win in the production department, but it’s a bit of a punt in the lyrics department, I’m afraid.
Now this is the sort of song that I go into expecting it to be fluff, because it’s light-hearted and danceable and its main function seems to be to give the back half of the album a little energy before we dive back into the headier stuff. No problem with any of that. I’m honestly happy that a song called “Lightyears” correctly identifies the lightyear as a unit of distance, not time, finding Kimbra stranded on some sort of a distant sun and wondering how to get back to some semblance of the universe she knows. The vast separation from the life she knew before was probably brought about by the breakup she’s alluded to a few times on this album, which I guess left her stranded in a situation where she didn’t have a whole lot of other people to lean on for support? Wow, did I say that this song was light-hearted? The way I’m describing it probably doesn’t make it seem that way, but the 80s dance track and the fun little bleeps and bloops from the keyboard certainly give the record a bit of needed levity. It sounds like it’s coming from a place of confidence that getting back to where she started is still somehow possible, at least.
8. Black Sky
“Tonight I’m gonna sit with you, while the L.A. skies are burning.” That one line gives this otherwise laid-back electropop song quite a different meaning, at least if you’ve ever lived in Los Angeles and you know how literal those words can be. I’m gonna guess that this song was written during one of the notorious wildfire seasons we’ve had in recent years, while Kimbra was here working on her album, and probably being homesick for New Zealand, where presumably you can’t tell that summer has turned into autumn by observing that your entire city appears to be going up in flames. Wildfires are more the backdrop of this song than they are the subject, though – the blacked-out sky seems to be a metaphor for wanting clarity in a relationship, and wanting to be in a safe place with the one you love, where you can actually look up and see the stars at night and get a sense of perspective. The line “You’ll only really know me when the sun goes down” might imply that when the working day is done and she’s off the clock, that’s when the mask comes off and anyone in a close relationship with her will get to know the real Kimbra, deepest fears and all. If you can’t love her during the intense moments when the sky’s choked out with smoke and flames loom on the horizon, then you don’t deserve in those moments of stargazing bliss, I guess. I really enjoy the way that this one is produced, and the way that the ominous electronic sounds evoke both wonder and a sense of danger at the same time. it’s a deep cut for sure, but easily among my favorites on this record.
9. Past Love
From here on out, the album seems to slowly retreat into quieter and gentler arrangements as each track goes by. This one’s a fairly chill ballad that plays around with a nostalgic, Motown sort of sound (at least I hope I’m correctly identifying that sound) – it seems like the kind of song that could have had its sonic roots in the decades before I was even born, yet it fits pretty comfortably into the production values of the album overall, which I think is a pretty neat trick. Instead of singing to a past love and wanting him back, this song seems to be continuing from the theme of “Recovery”, and serving as a reminder that this person can’t help her any more, and she needs to be on her own for a while and learn to love herself. Instead of pining for a happy time in her life that can never return, it seems to be about being content to let the past be the past, and having confidence that developing a healthy love for herself will translate well into a future romance somewhere down the line.
10. Right Direction
Two things about this song strike me as interesting, in light of the knowledge that Kimbra is from New Zealand, First off, her pronunciation of the word “direction”, which is “DIE-rection” rather than “DUH-rection” like we sloppy Americans say it. You often can’t pick out a person’s accent while they’re singing, but little touches like that give it away, and this of course has no bearing on the meaning or execution of the song; it’s just something that tends to stand out to me. Second, she mentions wanting to “run ’til the street signs are foreign”, which I guess is possible in America though highly inadvisable, and if she were back home in New Zealand, it would be literally impossible. I guess I find the little details more interesting than the song itself in this case, because this one is so laid back, with its plodding beat and its play-it-safe light pop approach that doesn’t have much in the way of attitude or experimentation to it, that it ends up being the most forgettable song on the album. I suppose I had a harsher opinion of tracks like “Rescue Him” or “Everlovin’ Ya” from her previous album that actively irritated me by reaching for something they couldn’t quite grasp, but now that I look back, at least those tracks had a strong sense of personality. This one doesn’t truly establish itself until the string section begins to simmer and the vocals get a bit more reverb-y near the end, implying a bigger climax that never quite arrives. It’s vaguely pretty, I suppose, but nothing about it really keeps me engaged.
11. Version of Me
There’s at least one track on each of Kimbra’s albums that seems to blow off the rhythm section entirely in favor of just vocals and a piano or some other form of miniscule instrumentation that puts her in a rather naked and vulnerable place. “The Build Up”, the challenging closing track from Vows, was her first instance of this, and then came the eerie “Come As You Are” on The Golden Echo. This one’s not quite as out there, but the lonely vocals and piano pretty much immediately put her in the confessional booth, for this time owning up to her own failings in a relationship, promising there’s a better version of her to be found that she hasn’t quite discovered yet. It fits the theme of the previous songs which established that she’s still a person worthy of loving and being loved, but who maybe needs some time for personal reflection and growth before she’s ready to dive into another relationship. Here she seems to be telling someone that she’s into him, but perhaps she’s met him too soon, and she hopes he’ll stick around until she’s healed enough to make a better impression on him. While I found this one to be a bit too subdued at first, it’s grown on me due to the subtle way her voice begins to echo and smear and become ever so slightly creepy at a few points in the song, as if the idealized future good self is still being haunted by the broken past self. While this one was released as a single not long before the album came out, there’s actually another version that came out just recently, which was reimagined as a duet with Dawn Richard, which strips away most of the piano in favor of emphasizing the eerily good vocal haromonies between Kimbra’s original version and Dawn’s deeper voice. (It also strips away the two women’s clothing in the provocative music video, which is something Kimbra appears to have a thing for considering her previous appearance in Gotye’s infamous video.) I’m not sure which version of “Version of Me” is the better one, but both arrangements fit the lyrics reasonably well.
12. Real Life
The brief closing track is an interesting idea on paper – a meditative outro in which the only instrumentation is the sound of Kimbra humming in the background, manipulated in a machine-like fashion in the style of Imogen Heap or Bon Iver. With three verses and only a very brief refrain at the end of each, this song doesn’t belabor the point – it’s almost like a recap of themes explored earlier in the album, making it clear that reality doesn’t allow us to go back and undo our mistakes, and ultimately we’re wiser and better off for it even if the results are messy. Unfortunately the metallic masking on Kimbra’s voice is borderline annoying – as it was on several tracks on Bon Iver’s last album – and the track fades out before it can come to a definitive conclusion, almost feeling like it was originally a reprise of a track from earlier in the album that ended up getting cut. I’d be willing to withhold judgment on my initial annoyance if she’d done something a little bolder with the arrangement before ending the track. While I can acknowledge that it took talent even to arrange two minutes of this, and thus anything further probably would have been a lot more time consuming, I still can’t help that I ultimately have a bit of a “So what?” response upon hearing the end result.
While I tend to not consider material cut from an album in my final rating of that album, I do think it’s worth bringing up the aforementioned single “Sweet Relief”, which was a far more funky and sensual experiment than anything heard on Primal Heart, and also “Hi Def Distance Romance”, which was apparently cut at the eleventh hour when Kimbra made the decision to push the release date for the album back from January to April in order to tinker with it a bit more – she ended up releasing it straight to the Internet just so fans wouldn’t miss out on a track that she still loved but didn’t think was a good fit. Stylistically, “Hi Def” is pretty bizarre, almost like the Kid A of manic, offbeat electropop/R&B songs, and while it would have brought a very different energy to this album, I think the back half of Primal Heart in particular could have used a weird left turn or two, so I’m mildly bummed to hear that neither of these intriguing tracks made the cut. Go look both of them up on YouTube if you like what you’re hearing on the final product and want to dig a little deeper into Kimbra’s weird side. (Or just go back and listen to The Golden Echo, for that matter.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Good War $1.75
Top of the World $1.50
Everybody Knows $1.75
Like They Do on the TV $.50
Black Sky $1.50
Past Love $1
Right Direction $.25
Version of Me $1
Real Life $.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: