There are moments of poetic beauty so front-and-center on Debbie Neigher’s sophomore album, Unravel, you’d be remiss not to struggle to swallow a bit after hearing them. Operating within both minimalist fits of piano-led dream ballads and surging, epic arrangements, Neigher’s gorgeous voice is given ample room to sing lines like, “I open my eyes and all the lightbulbs burst/the halogen showers fill up the pails on the floor/Halos of glass around my feet/We kneel in the dark/My knees crunch the glass like virgin snow/it doesn’t even hurt/we don’t even feel it anymore.”
Later, the narrator sews her eyes to sleep.
So opens Unravel, a production helmed by a who’s-who of San Francisco engineers and collaborators, including John Vanderslice—whose Tiny Telephone Studios housed the recording of the album. With arrangement assistance from the Magik*Magik Orchestra (Death Cab for Cutie) and accompaniment by Jason Slota (Thao and the Get Down Stay Down), Jesse Cafiero (Split Screens, Thao, Sean Hayes), Sylvain Carton (Japonize Elephants) and Justine Leichtling (The Sam Chase), Unravel sounds, ironically, like a tightly wound snapshot of a woman confronting life’s ebbs and flows.
Sometimes epiphanies come in full-on pop revelry, as on the radio-ready dance jam “I Am Ready,” a tune that could be dismissed as a saccharine-sweet single were it not for Neigher’s insistence on traversing a world of dark self-introspection.
“Tomato Fields” relates a leisurely romp through suburban nostalgia, where the narrator grew up in parking lots and is simultaneously mortified and proud at the remembrance of it. Neigher croons, “We’ll walk through tomato fields and make a paste between our toes/you bring the cheese, I’ll bring the dough/we’ll make a pizza with the scarecrows…/We don’t want them to know that we grew up in parking lots and cul de sacs/We need to be believe that we had culture/we had truth and we had rules in places completely faked.”
Forget that the tune is propelled by somewhat corny horns and skunky keys—it’s the kind of musical sashay you might hear in the background of a commercial for glass cleaner, despite the ensemble’s obvious proficiency—Neigher’s insightful prose is such an honest vignette of empowerment that it’s tough to fault the vehicle.
Besides, there are plenty of daring escapades on Unravel, including the title track, which finds Neigher flittering her nimble digits over plunky piano lines, where dynamic drum patterns and intriguing instrumental layers lull you into a place the lyrics might not make you think you ought to be.
Debbie Neigher’s advocates, and accolades, continue to multiply the more her craft is whittled. On Unravel, with a little help from her friends, overcoming vulnerability has never sounded so painfully good.