In April 2018, Mackenzie Scott, the preternaturally talented songwriter who records under the name TORRES, announced on Twitter that her storied label, 4AD, had dropped her from a planned three-album deal “for not being commercially successful enough.” It was an upsetting blow, particularly given the strength of TORRES’ third album, Three Futures, an alluring art-pop concept album examining bodily pleasure with Kraftwerk and CAN as aural reference points. Scott tumbled into self-doubt. “I was in a really bad place,” she reflected in a more recent interview with SPIN. She considered leaving music altogether. Instead, she started writing, and didn’t stop for months.
Silver Tongue, TORRES’ excellent fourth album—and first for Merge—is the result of that defiant burst. It’s not a set of sugary hooks designed to crack the Discover Weekly algorithm: The record, which is self-produced, sacrifices no ounce of Scott’s sharp-angled, emotionally explosive songcraft. It leans into the electro-pop atmosphere of Three Futures, but the textures are so unsettling and lonely that it would never scan as a bid for crossover appeal. Scott remains an improbably vivid writer both lyrically and melodically; throughout Silver Tongue, she takes desire and infatuation as her subject and icy synthesizers as her instrument of choice.
The album chronicles the narrative arc of a relationship, from the thrill and terror of chasing a suddenly obtainable crush (“Good Scare,” “Last Forest”), to the ensuing entanglement (“Records of Your Tenderness”), jealousy (“Two of Everything”) and post-breakup spiraling (“Good Grief”). In this regard, Silver Tongue is like a synth-pop cousin of Liz Phair’s similarly sequenced Whip-Smart, except that TORRES’ romantic vignettes are unmistakably queer. On “Two of Everything,” with its M83-worthy layers of overcast synths, an embittered Scott questions her ex-girlfriend’s new lover: “To the one sharing my lover’s bed / Do you hold her when she sleeps? / Does she also call you Baby?”
It’s a stark emotional centerpiece for the record, in part because Scott’s approach is imbued with far more empathy than, say, CeeLo Green’s “Fuck You.” (“I’m going to be the biggest thorn in your side,” she warns the object of her envy, yet she has the decency to feel bad about it in the next line.) The female pronouns make clear that she is not longing for a man. As the artist told an NPR interviewer, “I want people to understand that women can burn for each other.”
TORRES’ previous albums have addressed relationships plenty, but here she probes the subject—and her own anxieties—with surgical precision. Silver Tongue is full of keen one-liners and strange little insights into the darker side of desire and insecurity. “Good Scare,” which uses a flood of thumping ’80s drums to inject cinematic drama into Scott’s desires, captures the disorienting fluctuations in confidence that accompany a love interest’s possible reciprocation: “When you said you couldn’t swing it / You gave me a good scare for a minute there.” And “Dressing America” offers this poetic illustration of infatuation, set to an uneasy melding of synth sheen and pedal steel: “I tend to sleep with my boots on / Should I need to gallop over dark water to you.”
Musically, Silver Tongue feels far removed from TORRES’s early albums, yet its best track, “Good Grief,” offers a sleek update on the indie-rock crunch of 2015’s Sprinter. The song finds Scott brooding after the break-up, alone at the bar where she met her ex. The song’s chorus satirizes cultural fetishization of depression (“Good grief, baby / There’s no such thing”), while its climax deploys fuzzy power chords and a mangled guitar hook in the album’s one real rock-out moment.
That climax makes the spare vulnerability of “A Few Blue Flowers” and “Gracious Day” all the more striking. The latter hints at a reconciliation, with acoustic arpeggios undergirding a promise to “write you only love songs.” In appropriately meta fashion, this is one of TORRES’s purest love songs, and Silver Tongue’s biggest misstep is not letting such a strong closer end the album. “Silver Tongue,” the actual closer, feels tacked on: It’s the rare moment when the artist’s synth-pop production feels overly busy, overpowering the song and muffling the impact.
This is a minor gripe: More TORRES is a good thing, especially after a worrisome interlude when it seemed the artist might be done. And Silver Tongue is compelling evidence that she is not.
Revisit TORRES’ 2015 Riverview Bungalow session from SXSW: