Whimsy Meets Philosophy on Regina Spektor’s Home, before and after
The beloved songsmith returns at last with a mix of her characteristic pomp and thoughtful storytellingMusic Reviews Regina Spektor
Twee is back, in case you hadn’t heard. Articles like this one commemorating the return of the late-2000s/early-2010s hipster subculture are more likely referring to the era’s fashion (think Zooey Deschanel bangs and lots of plaid), but if Regina Spektor’s new album is any indication, then the music of the twee era may be in for a renaissance, too. Spektor’s latest is laced with whimsical indie-pop stylings that wouldn’t sound out of place on the records of twee artists like Belle and Sebastian, Feist or Spektor herself. But where What We Saw from the Cheap Seats (Spektor’s 2012 offering) was pink and sticky-sweet, Home, before and after, her long-awaited eighth studio album, is a more sophisticated delicacy, perhaps something creamy dusted with espresso. It’s Spektor at both her most serious and her most adventurous.
Spektor does, however, fully embrace a sugar rush on the song “SugarMan,” a hooky pop tune featuring the Russian-born, New York-raised singer/songwriter’s signature edge. Spektor has always had a way of pulverizing pop conventions only to mush them back together in her own way, and “Sugar Man” is the epitome of that process.
Home is co-produced by Spektor and John Congleton, who has helped artists like Sharon Van Etten and St. Vincent chase their sounds in bold new directions. The fruits of a Congleton partnership, in this case, are apparent across nearly every moment of the album, from the end-of-song hurricane on the eclectic “Spacetime Fairytale” to the synth-y stupor of “One Man’s Prayer.” The album’s occasionally otherworldly arrangements reveal a new strain of warmth snaking through Spektor’s words. Even when she’s playing the role of a dogged male romantic on “One Man’s Prayer”—in which she explores the psyche of men who are lonely and dangerous—we’re granted a pleasant space to collect our thoughts. Spektor isn’t sympathizing with incels. She’s simply showing us a character, and the feelings that surface thereafter are our own business. While Home leaves plenty of room for rumination, Spektor herself told Vulture she’s “not trying to, with this record, make you think something or change your mind about something.”
The most classically Regina Spektor-y Regina Spektor song on the album must be “Loveology,” which, along with the lullaby “Raindrops,” has been floating around in the ether for some time, and appearing at her live shows every now and then, but has only now found a home on an album. And as it’s a clever love song about doing “nothin’ at all,” it’s the perfect addition to Home’s often frenetic tracklisting. “Up the Mountain” is also grounding, but in a different way. Its assurances of “In the flower, there’s a nectar / In the nectar, there’s an answer” are stitched together with roaming speak-sing not unlike that of Life Without Buildings, and it stores just as much wisdom as that band’s “The Leanover.”
If “Up the Mountain” and “Becoming All Alone” (which declares, “This whole world makes me carsick,” and asks, “If you have a heart, why don’t you use it?”) are the album’s anchors, then the aforementioned “Spacetime Fairytale” is where Home becomes gleefully unmoored. As Spektor sings, “The world began outside of time / Some days it’s yours, some days it’s mine, some days it’s cruel, some days it’s kind, it just can’t stay the same”), it sounds like the climactic ballad in a Sondheim show until it implodes, collapsing into a sonic vortex that sucks up every beautiful note into a scattered swirl. “Through a Door,” too, takes a page from Broadway’s book, with its pattering piano, sweeping strings and Spektor’s belting of the chorus. And “What Might Have Been,” a series of oxymorons, swells to something akin to the schizophrenic music of Moulin Rouge, only much more tame.
Balancing big ideas with oddball production and all-around whimsical music-making, Spektor takes some big swings on Home, yet also remains so true to her one-of-a-kind style. Ever charming, the dame of New York music is still making electrifying piano-pop eight albums in. Of course, Spektor does not in these songs eclipse the pop elation of her semi-hit “Fidelity,” or the perfect melancholia of fan favorites like “Samson,” but this doesn’t sound like an album that set out to do any such things. Home, before and after is simply the collection of songs Spektor needed to put out at this moment in time—and she’s the only one who could have.
Swinging feverishly between elevated pop and bombastic tales, Home once again finds Spektor working in a dimension where genre doesn’t exist. Whether she’s swimming around in theories about space and time, or just riffing on a few scales to make a love song, Spektor’s words and melodies on Home, before and after are a dazzling delight. Twee or not, she remains one of the great musical treasures of the Empire State, and therefore a treasure to us all.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.