Much of Screaming Females’ appeal, and even their greatness, is their esotericism – in particular the impenetrable world of Marissa Paternoster’s hermetic guitar, lyrical poetry and visual art. Their new album All At Once veers from that world sharply, collecting some of the most conventionally anthemic and melodic rock songs of their career. The ironic twist is that for the New Brunswick, New Jersey group this is their experiment, one for which their six previous albums spent developing their own inimitable sound has well prepared them.
There were flickers of a more accessible sound on 2015’s Rose Mountain but the power trio remained enigmatic, pursuing their own uncharted vision of rock. This time, they dare to adopt the structure of existing rock genres. As a result, it’s quite varied, making it really enjoyable to listen to all the way through. They fully commit to the majestic (punk) power ballad on “Black Moon.” “Agnes Martin” is a transcendent ode to the abstract visual artist, rendered in towering fire whirl of psych rock. “I’ll Make You Sorry” is hooky power pop stopping just short of handclaps. It could have ruled the alternative airwaves in the ’90s. The ’90s influence is strong here, and the references are choice. “Dirt” captures the trippy magic of Helium circe 1995.
It’s surprisingly satisfying to encounter this less remote and cerebral version of the band, not least because these are some of the most emotionally intelligible lyrics we’ve heard from Paternoster. Some songs, “My Body” and “Soft Domination” in particular, deal precisely with the tension between wanting to be truly known and seen, and the completely legitimate fear of allowing one’s identity to be defined by others or another, by one person or the whole world, as a result of being vulnerable. Give too much away and they can pin you down forever. In another twist, this is the very risk she is taking through these songs. Rarely does this directness mean sacrificing inspired language. Album opener “Glass House” grabs the attention immediately with Jim Morrison-esque panache through lines like “Take my madness beneath your heel, even if it bends.”
After being thoroughly and perversely encrypted for so long, it’s bracing to hear one of the most original practicing voices in rock (musically, vocally, lyrically) speaking so plainly on every level. With some bands it would mean a capitulation or slackening. For Screaming Females, it is just another display of power.