For the native New Yorker, the west may seem as foreign a land as some faraway country. Heading out west for the first time often carries its own mythology: a promise of bucolic transformation and reflection, where the industrial soul of the city dweller might find clarity amongst the badlands. It’s a fabled promise that Lola Kirke seems to seek through sound: On her debut full-length Heart Head West, the Manhattan-raised singer/songwriter borrows from the rural vestiges of Americana to trail her own answers on love, loss and longing.
It’s an inspired approach that sees Kirke aching to marry the romanticism of that roots music with dreamy, indie arrangements. This often means hearing fiddles, shuffling drums and Kirke’s heady voice seeping into each other across the album, as if filtered under some gauzy haze. At the record’s strongest points, these misty arrangements still retain clarity: on album opener and single “Monster,” Kirke’s sleepy, sultry vocals feel pointed despite the track’s sepia tone. “What if nothing’s wrong?” she wonders at the onset, resolving by the chorus, “I’m not a monster / Just someone who wants to belong.” Her drifting voice questions her insecurities in the same breath as she confirms them, the result being an unambiguous meditation on belonging and self-acceptance.
On occasion, Kirke abandons these lucid moments to maintain the album’s smoky mood— a choice that, while alluring, finds the record losing its precision. Her voice can fall into breathy, blurred territory: on “Born to Die,” her repetitive lyrics are not bolstered by either vocal delivery or instrumental arrangement. Later, “Bad News” sees her verses straying from focus, her languid melody casting a full fog unlike the blissful, sun-soaked reverie of tracks like “Simon Says.” When Kirke resists this passivity and opts for measured intensity, we end up with standout tracks like the spirited rockabilly number, “Supposed To.” Rollicking guitar riffs and thumping drums hold equal power to Kirke’s intoxicating voice here, with which she muses about “All the things I’m supposed to,” and “All the things I’m not supposed to,” do as a woman, recalling the more cogent lyricism of the record’s opener.
It’s in these moments of specificity that Kirke seems sure and settled, and it becomes clear that hers is more than some vague mimicry of Americana; instead, she is using the genre on her own terms. Heart Head West tiptoes into territory that Americana’s forefathers tend to evade rather than engage with: the politics of gender and sexuality, which Kirke considers with equal measure to their rustic simplicities. And as an acclaimed actress, daughter of Simon Kirke from rock supergroup Bad Company, and sister to Jemima Kirke of HBO’s Girls, Lola is also proving that she exists outside of these relations. Heart Head West provides the soundtrack to this independence, and suggests that her journey has only just begun.