Madeline Kenney Finds Joy—and Trepidation—on Sucker’s Lunch

On her third LP, the Oakland dream-pop musician reflects on both the ecstasy and excruciation of love

Music Reviews Madeline Kenney
Madeline Kenney Finds Joy—and Trepidation—on Sucker’s Lunch

Neither Madeline Kenney nor her music stays in one place for long. After Kenney explored melancholic, nocturnal shoegaze and campfire psychedelia on her 2016 Signals EP and her Toro y Moi-produced 2017 debut LP Night Night at the First Landing, she took a sharp left-turn into sparse, verdant dream pop with 2018’s Perfect Shapes, produced by Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak. Between Night Night and Perfect Shapes, she relocated from Oakland, Calif., to the much quieter city of Durham, N.C., where she wrote and recorded Perfect Shapes—an album in large part about starting over—while living with Wasner. She also wrote Sucker’s Lunch, her Perfect Shapes follow-up, in Durham, but she didn’t start recording it until she returned to Oakland.

Like its predecessor, Sucker’s Lunch is the product of Kenney ruminating on—and making—life changes, and its dewy, early-morning dream-pop is again Wasner-produced. This time, though, Wasner’s Wye Oak bandmate Andy Stack joins on production too, and Kenney often sets aside the cautious bliss of Perfect Shapes for unrestrained optimism. Where Wasner previously added playful flourishes to Kenney’s rapturous arrangements, she and Stack here embellish Kenney’s creations with bouncy guitar and synth effects; even the ballads on Sucker’s Lunch overflow with an ebullience at which Perfect Shapes only hinted. This pervasive, abundant joy renders Sucker’s Lunch as Kenney’s best album yet.

Kenney’s elation comes from a fairly typical source: While writing Sucker’s Lunch, she rushed headfirst into love. If Perfect Shapes was a subconscious reckoning with a breakup, Sucker’s Lunch is a reflection on the anxieties that accompany falling in love—and, ultimately, the choice to push those fears aside. “Just try me / I want to tell you everything,” Kenney calmly begs her paramour atop glimmering, ringing guitars and a soft percussive rattle on “Tell You Everything,” with the echo of Wasner’s backing vocals reverberating Kenney’s humble yet urgent request. “If I wasn’t such a wreck, I’d start something,” she sings on “Cut the Real,” but she’s not devastated—she’s thrilled to be so crippled by devotion, and the song’s undercurrents of featherlight arpeggios, clinking percussion and dribbling bass are likewise as balmy as they are amorous. The lyric “I want to recreate the picture I have in my head of you surrounded by white light,” from the slightly overdriven, mildly psychedelic “White Window Light,” evokes a wedding and Twin Peaks in the same breath.

More energetic moments abound as well. On “Double Hearted,” crests of background vocal harmonies combine with plinking xylophones and mud-speckled guitars as Kenney coolly commands “I want you / To come and fuck up the garden” and wails “Voices get me high!” Her ecstasy is so pure that it’s easy to miss the line that follows: “I’d do anything,” which later becomes “I’m doing everything alone” and eventually—crucially—“I don’t wanna do anything alone.” On the pirouetting “Jenny,” atop bunny-hopping guitars and low-tide synths, Kenney simultaneously contemplates romantic curiosity and worry: “I like when they tell me what you’re like / What do you think they say about me?” When she describes herself as a swimmer, she’s not drowning—she’s freestyling her way toward eternity.

Sucker’s Lunch isn’t always so obvious in its love language. Booming, UV-index-nine opener “Sugar Sweat” pivots from the jargon of haggling to, ostensibly, Kenney attempting to help her new partner make sense of the things they don’t like about themself—the metaphor isn’t as clear as, say, the garden of “Double Hearted.” The sly grumble of “Be That Man” creates a vast forest in which Kenney’s tongue-in-cheek brags of “I wanna be that man” ring loudly, but her internal monologuing about whether to free herself to love doesn’t provide much of a canopy. (She tackles the same question much more deftly on the lazy-river, piano-ballad closer “Sweet Coffee” when she sings of “circling around maybe” and “drowning in the could be.”) On “Picture of You,” she attempts to reckon with her and her partner’s formative traumas, but her lyrics (“I showed a picture of you to my mom and she cried”) can be so sharp and unbelievable that they take the listener out of the moment. Kenney may not always have the right language to describe her love and her worries about it, but where words fail her, her unabashed musical rhapsodies speak volumes.

Max Freedman has written about a lot of music for Paste, The A.V. Club, FLOOD, Bandcamp Daily and MTV News, but in reality, he only listens to Beach House. Follow him on Twitter for almost no original content and almost entirely retweets of truly mordant viral content or something funny Phoebe Bridgers said.

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