Singular artist diluted by too many cooks
The turn of the 21st century wasn’t exactly the best time to be a girl with a piano. After holding court throughout the 1990s, ivory queen Tori Amos had slipped off Scarlet’s Walk after Strange Little Girls, leaving Vanessa Carlton mewling in her wake and Fiona Apple floundering for another five years in label limbo. So the emergence of the Moscow-born, Bronx-raised Regina Spektor and her 2004 Sire Records debut, Soviet Kitsch, wasn’t so much a breath of fresh air as it was a much-needed swig of whatever potato-brewed goodness Spektor was chugging on her album cover. Classically trained but, equally, a student of bootlegged Western pop cassettes and noisy New York streets, Spektor plinked, plunked and crooned about ghosts and loogies, and she rapped about cancer and the strange sorrows of privilege with a beguiling panache, a completely new and delightful amalgam of her own design.
Her 2006 follow-up, Begin to Hope, hit like a hard glottal stop, bursting into the mainstream like the tempera-paint-powder fight in the video for lead single “Fidelity.” With this album came Spektor’s inevitable tagging as “quirky,” an irritating word that usually says more about the describer than the described. Here, though, it indicates an awareness of some sort of agreeable weirdness and lyrical depth—specifically, Spektor’s deeply assured sense of time, space and irony, which allows her to disregard everything sacrosanct and compress the past, present and future into transcendently ludicrous premises, stuffing modern brand-name snacks into the mouths of Biblical figures and parlaying a Guns N’ Roses reference into an acceptance of the certainty of death. Hope was decidedly less odd than its predecessor—lighter on the sprechrap, heavier on the string patches—but its offbeat charm was still intoxicating.
Spektor’s third Sire full-length would seem a prime opportunity for her to kidnap the fans she lured in three years ago with her weird sweetness and haul them off on some bizarre intergalactic journey, something stranger and more wonderful than anything she’d done before. By all accounts, she had it in her. But it’s unclear how much of Far is actually Spektor: No less than four producers—Mike Elizondo, David Kahne, Jeff Lynne and Garret “Jacknife” Lee—contributed to the album, and their collective efforts have resulted in a mid-tempo muddle of pseudo-lovely tracks plagued by a hovering cloud of meddling strings, slappy drums and perfunctory triangle chimes.
Soviet Kitsch and Begin to Hope’s dynamics were arresting, Spektor’s voice sneaking from a childish whisper to a pitch-perfect yowl, a Slavic lilt to a dry Bronx sneer, from song to song and even verse to verse. But here, over plodding piano lines and barely-there hooks, she sounds tight-throated and stilted, like she’s either just woken up or is about to fall asleep. Her lyrics are sweetly humored, but almost exclusively so; there’s hardly a trace of that essential salt to balance the sugar. Which is strange because most of these songs focus on serious stuff—technology-induced isolation from our own bodies, the death of dreams and faith and our capacity to love, phenomenological harbingers of the end of the world—that should be able to shore up some sadness or anger or at least a bit of defiant sass. But Spektor sounds listless, nonplussed by the apocalypse she’s created for herself.
In plucky opening track “The Calculation,” computers parcel out emotions until human hearts are literally turned to rocks—existential gallstones, perhaps? Either way, Spektor makes it all sound inexplicably adorable when she should be scared shitless. In “Genius Next Door,” lake water thickens like butter overnight and the titular neighbor drowns himself in it; a similar feeling of suffocation is invoked by “Machine,” which features both the album’s best line (the ominously clever, “Living in your prewar apartment / Soon to be your post-war apartment”) and its most ridiculous chorus (the haughty, robotic refrain, “Hooked into machine / I’m hooked into machine!”) over a Stomp-lite garbage-pail clank and forced feedback wail. “The Folding Chair” is honestly delightful and, with its oblique Radiohead reference and dolphin impersonation, comes closest to matching Spektor’s sorely missed spunk, but its escapist romance is all frothy daydream—nothing resonates, nothing sticks.
Perhaps wryly, perhaps not, the album’s most fulfilling interpersonal exchange comes in rifling through the content of a stranger’s lost wallet. But Far’s most arresting irony is how detached Spektor sounds while trying to convince us of the dangers of detachment. She can do big and weird (Hope’s “20 Years of Snow”) and bittersweet (“That Time”) and righteously indignant (Kitsch’s “Chemo Limo”)—so why is Far, a collection of songs loosely themed around the downfall of humanity, so eerily dispassionate? If this was a conscious choice by Spektor and her battalion of producers, it was a bad one. Most likely, though, it’s the result of her engaging in a bit too much of what Far attempts to mourn: personal interaction.
“Quirky” is a lazy label, but it’s usually meant as compliment, and Spektor is truly one of the most unique artists to emerge over the past decade. She owes it to herself and her audience to preserve that individualism at all costs, to shrug off the hired hands and go at it alone, blaze her own crooked trail, dig her own grave and burst out of it again. Surely there’s some cabin in upstate New York where she can hole up by herself with a baby grand for a few months—then the songs might take on the frank intimacy she’s so desperate for, and more than capable of. You go, girl. We’ll wait for you.
Listen to Regina Spektor on MySpace.