Madeline Kenney Collects Herself on A New Reality Mind

The Bay Area singer/songwriter debuts her solo production chops on fourth LP

Music Reviews Madeline Kenney
Madeline Kenney Collects Herself on A New Reality Mind

It’s a tale as old as time: Enter an all-consuming relationship, teeming with love, and write an album about it. Bay Area singer/songwriter Madeline Kenney did just that on 2020’s Sucker’s Lunch. But that tale often comes with a flipside: a painstaking yet abrupt end, experientially akin to disembarking from a thrilling coaster to find you need to get your land-legs back. Kenney works on re-tethering her newly independent self to her circumstances on A New Reality Mind, her fourth full-length album since 2017. Just a few months removed from the breakup, Kenney arrives clear-headed, gesturing towards ornamented synth-pop through production done all on her own. A New Reality Mind offers an entrancing, peculiar sonic palette never before seen on Kenney’s albums, ensconcing her in a tradition with dance music and indie-rock roots to create something unmistakably hers—which makes her stylistic choices, sometimes tame and sometimes daring, a feat to track.

“Well, I might as well sit down and try, if nothing else, to get by,” Kenney starts on “Plain Boring Disaster,” an all-but-boring song that weaponizes the electric guitar, autotune and synths that glow like a starry night sky to remove any facade she has about her newfound lonesomeness. Each element punctures a wound in the artifice, forcing Kenney to reckon with the finality of her relationship and all the mishaps that got her there. The track is structured less like a song and more like a thesis statement, hastily pivoting into “Superficial Conversation,” a song narrating the cathartic act of shedding past habits. Its lyrical frankness is akin to Samia and the sonic denouement of CHVRCHES. Synths are Kenney’s co-star on the album, propelling “Superficial Conversation” forward and pulsating like alarms on “Reality Mind.”

One of the album’s centerpieces, “I Drew A Line,” is a curious track inspired by the quirkiest of ‘80s creativity grounded by simple mid-tempo percussion. The layers are quirky and intricate, with the saxophone solo in the track’s middle being an exciting standout. But all of it can grow repetitive. The unique, interjecting moments on the song call attention to the repetitive synth storms underneath and a percussion that grounds the song in, arguably, too normal a territory. That is to say: The experimental moments have room to get weirder. But, at one level, there is always a tension after a breakup to both sow chaos and create order for yourself and, most of the time, Kenney walks that line brilliantly. But, some further chaos would not hurt.

“It Carries On” has some more of that energy, especially in the saxophone solo, over what could best be described as a lounge song from the future. Kenney weaves between minimalism and maximalism confidently. On a track like “The Same Again,” she layers her voice into transhuman territory, sounding more like a cyborg than a woman. It’s when she layers her voice this starkly that it’s the most exciting. Sometimes, when the affectations are slightly less processed, like on parts of “I Drew A Line,” she sounds not unlike Taylor Swift onMidnights: Underscored, certainly, but not always bold. Kenney is most imaginative at her boldest.

“HFAM” has a more convincing intensity, while Kenney’s voice angelically, even desperately, calls out: “Please let this house fall around me.” Her production shines here, evolving over the song’s four minutes to incorporate a mechanical brilliance that contrasts against her fluid voice like a breakwall. “Leaves Me Dry” is starker, with playful synths glitzing underneath, mixed tastefully over a mild tempo that gives the song a lulling quality. The strings in closing track “Expectations” are masterful—as it leans psychedelic, with echoing guitars and a plodding drum machine keeping the song beneath the cosmos. As glum and disquieting as A New Reality Mind is, “Expectations” feels like an oddly optimistic coda; its propulsive quality suggests a willingness to move on into something more peaceful, if not genuinely beautiful.

A New Reality Mind is curious, careful and, at times, triumphant. Breakups are messy, and Kenney made room on the album for blips of discord through her novel production choices. While there are tracks like “I Drew A Line” where the production choices may flatten her voice, or on “Leaves Me Dry” where they feel too restrained, Kenney’s work toes the thin line between order and chaos—and when she lets herself descend into something more chaotic, her music gets downright exciting. The impulse to choose order is sensible both emotionally and musically; after a breakup, there has to be some logic used to figure out what went wrong and what needs to happen next.

But Kenney functions just as well under a more random regime, and A New Reality Mind suggests she has that in her. What would happen if Kenney used autotune for an entire track? What would happen if she expanded her synth and dance palette to include punk, coldwave or other extreme aesthetics? The inspiration is there, but the adoption is tepid. She makes daring moves on A New Reality Mind, but with a stronger push, the whole album could be a daring statement, too.

Read our recent feature on Madeline Kenney here and watch her 2018 Paste studio session below.

Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Slumber Mag, Merry-Go-Round and Post-Trash. He is currently a student in Philadelphia. He lives on Twitter @bigugly.

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