Love gets compared to bodies of water over and over again. There are plenty of high-school-English-class ways you could interpret this symbolism, but one thing’s for sure: The ocean of love is infinitely vast, taking many forms, and Indigo Sparke knows this well. On her latest album, Hysteria, released via Sacred Bones and produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, nowhere is this titular emotion portrayed more accurately than in the constant comparison to the waves of passion and love. Throughout the whole album, she chokes on and rejoices with this sea, the lyrics being her clearest expression. The music holds a beautiful portrait of midnight tension portrayed in soft, intense pop-folk.
Sparke uses her lyrics like incantations, drawing the listener into meditative, trance-like states. She chooses phrases with purpose, repeating the same words over and over, drawing new meaning out of the syllables and sinking them into the listener’s brain. In the distance, we see the wave of passion drawing ever closer, threatening to upset the equilibrium, comfort and, at times, stagnation found in this repetitive meditation. Just like water, it ends up finding us in so many different forms. In “Pluto,” it is deliciously intentional, with Sparke singing, “Let the smoke go / Let the love lead / Let the waves come crashing down / Until you find me.” At other times, the wave is the repetition of the past itself, as in “Real” when she sings, “Hold me down / I wanna feel / Break the wave / I wanna heal.” And in the end, it becomes her all-encompassing reality, with the words, “In the spirit of the tide we cry / In the spirit of the tide we hide,” on “Hold On.”
The album becomes its own universe, a blurry and intense one that Sparke is reluctant to leave. It almost feels like it was recorded to be played over the course of one night, with “Blue” serving as your introduction to the evening, and “Burn” putting you to an uneasy sleep as the sun rises. Through the words and desperate tone of “Time Gets Eaten,” with lyrics like, “Oh death / Oh hold / My rage / Oh come / And feel / Insane / Time gets eaten / But love is still alive,” she seems to ask to be released from the overwhelm of this romance, but at the same time want to stay in its throes. As the last lyrics of the album—“Please don’t wake me up / Just tell me it’s okay to dream,” on “Burn”—echo out, we see this push and pull between reality and the intoxicating places the mind can wander. The whole album feels like indulgence, as Sparke immerses herself in different memories as if we could all live with her there forever.
But for songwriting centering so strongly on overwhelming passion as a theme, the music itself struggles to match the power of this feeling. Much of the album has a theme of repressed burning and tension searing through it, a feeling exciting and unexpected for a few songs, but whose shine is rubbed off by the end of the LP. When so many of the songs similarly feature Sparke’s impressive vocals over simple, yet pointed instrumentation, with a sense of uncertainty and irrepressible pull towards something, the constant nature of this tone makes the album’s peaks underwhelming, and wears on the listener. If you picked songs individually from the album, they would hold gravitas in their own right. But as a group, they feel over-saturated, too much of a similar thing to help the listener develop an emotional journey of their own.
However, certain songs masterfully break the mold. In “Hysteria,” for instance, a door feels opened, breaking up the simmering of the rest of the LP. Sparke’s voice dances in a lighter way on this track, and the lyrics feel physical, as though she were weaving them for you with her hands. The shift in tone and the brighter guitar give the album much-needed variety in texture, helpfully shifting the musical and emotional lens through which it gets at its core themes. And on “Pressure In My Chest,” the harmonies give the complex impression that she is in a hall of mirrors, singing to every iteration of herself throughout time. It works many of her techniques most effectively—the tension, the blurry production, the warm guitars—making many of the other songs feel like attempts to reach the same emotional release, to a lesser effect.
Sparke’s voice is indeed the main instrument on this album, thrashing, swooning and always holding the listener’s attention. On songs like “God is a Woman’s Name” and “Hysteria,” she excels at keeping her voice light, yet full of emotion, whereas on tracks like “Blue,” it dissolves into a dark murmur. Although she never screams, there is a rawness at times that feels almost animalistic. The album’s instrumentation leaves a lot of room for her voice to make itself heard, with it serving more as a layer for her singing to rest on than anything else. Her voice and melodies have a flexibility that the arrangements don’t quite possess. Whereas her first album had a more bare-bones acoustic feel, this one takes on a more produced sound—and in this movement in a pop direction, it feels like Sparke could have worked to make her sound a bit more dynamic, pushing further outside of her comfort zone than she did. While Dessner’s production fills out her sound nicely, it also blurs the boundaries between her songs, allowing them to bleed into each other if you’re not paying active attention. The warmth of his work on Taylor Swift’s folklore is retained here, but he also draws you closer, with that added seed of grit that distinguishes Sparke.
She also blurs the boundaries between herself and the world, an experience many listeners will know to be all too common in raw and headily empathetic states. “??Fill in the blanks with your body / I wanna breathe / Don’t wanna leave,” she sings on “Real,” capturing the difficult feeling of wanting to become wholly one with a lover, the song’s title becoming slightly ironic as her own state of reality shifts. And the delicate guitar strings, like glass that the sun is shining through, brings the listener’s boundaries down just the same. Similarly, on “Sad Is Love,” her use of simple words to paint a mental picture—filled with heat, coffee stains and light—slowly brings us toward “the deaths and screams,” taking the listener along on her dizzying journey. We hold on to her words to make sense of our own emotional response.
Sparke’s strength remains largely with her lyrics and the cutting, desperate power of her towering voice. When listening to her music, there is no choice but empathy.
Rosa Sofia Kaminski is a Paste Music intern, writer, climber of trees and collector of odd treasures that she quickly loses, and is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She can be reached at @rosa.sofia.k on Instagram.