Friday, April 4, 2014

album review: 'head or heart' by christina perri

I've got a complicated relationship with Christina Perri.

Hell, I could make the argument I have a complicated relationship with the entire genre of piano-inspired adult alternative / pop rock - as in, I tend to be more forgiving of it than the male counterparts on acoustic guitars. I cannot in good faith say that everything in this genre is good or works consistently, but when you have artists that manage to come up with some imagination or unique framing or emotionally compelling performances, I'm normally pretty supportive. And thus, acts like Adele, A Fine Frenzy, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, and to a lesser extent Vanessa Carlton and Regina Spektor do manage to work for me more often than they don't.

And at first listen, Christina Perri was on that list too, and I distinctly remember liking 'Jar Of Hearts' more than I didn't back in 2011. But then I listened to that debut album and my liking for her as a performer nose-dived in record time. Like it or not, Perri's greatest strength on her better songs was her emotional vulnerability, but it wasn't long before I noticed that her lyrics frequently approached hyperbole and sophomoric whining. And given she wasn't exactly an impressive instrumentalist, it consigned large chunks of her material to being less compelling and more intolerably tedious. And really, it made all too much sense for 'A Thousand Years' to be attached to the Twilight franchise because it was a song so shallow and bereft of maturity that it made perfect sense to be attached to Stephenie Meyer's masturbation fantasy. So I put Christina Perri out of my mind, resolving that I'd come back when she put out another album and hoping that she might have grown up in the mean time, so when Head Or Heart came out this year, I gave it a few listens. How did it go?

Ugh, I should like this album more than I do. Because Head Or Heart by Christina Perri is an improvement over her debut, and there are a lot of elements I would normally react to in a better way... but it's also a record that fails when it goes for more ambitious material and nuance - which as a critic is the exact opposite of what you want to see. As such, you get a record that actually is pretty decent when it sticks with objectively 'easier' material, but starts to stumble whenever it guns for something heavier, which might have worse implications.

So what goes right on this album? Well, for the most part, the instrumentation is pretty good. Sure, Christina Perri isn't a great pianist - she relies heavily on power chords and the supporting arsenal of bleak electronic effects to create atmosphere - but at least there are more songs on this album that have a pulse and appear to be taking instrumental risks. 'One Night', for instance, was a pretty solid shot at a quiet storm ballad, and 'Human' is one of the better songs to use silence as a climax that I've seen in a while. And better yet, 'Sea Of Lovers' and 'Burning Gold' do a pretty solid job earning their dramatic swell with strings and the occasional bit of folk-inspired sounds. Nothing with a lot of texture or grit - this is production for Christina Perri, after all, where all the edges have been sanded off and most of the electronic elements are watery and muddy the sound more than they should, which really hamstrings the Spanish guitar on 'Lonely Child' and the muted organ tone at the back of 'Run'. But honestly, the melodies aren't bad on this album and show how Christina Perri has grown more confident as a songwriter.

And that confidence really does show up in Christina Perri's delivery and songwriting. While I don't think I'll ever be the biggest fan of hers as a vocalist - the girl has a lot of volume, but not a huge emotional range - she does push herself harder on this record in terms of vocal range. Plus, her songwriting has gotten better, and while there are still a few painfully high-school songs on this album that do nothing for me, I can imagine they'll absolutely kill with Christina Perri's target audience. And there are a few songs on this album where her musical theater background really does shine through in the bigger, more theatrical emotions, which worked for me. 

But it's where this album aims for more mature songwriting that we get some interesting material, and to be fair, there are points where Christina Perri nails the emotional balance required in the delivery. 'Human', for instance, is a painfully vulnerable song about how she has limits in terms of how much she'll compromise or give up in a relationship, and 'One Night' goes for hot passion on a one-night stand and kind of nails it. And as I mentioned, songs like 'Burning Gold' and 'Sea Of Lovers' work pretty damn well for the exuberant and earnest songs they are. But then you have songs like 'I Don't Wanna Break', where she seems to be aware the relationship is collapsing and the guy is a liar and she's desperate to hold it together, but if it doesn't work, she just wants to be close to the guy in question so he can comfort her. It's a weird tonal mishmash and that's before we get to the chorus which seems to be going for this soaring exuberance and it's an awkward fit.

And this song is evidence of a bigger problem, analogous to that of Tokyo Police Club in that I have no idea how self aware Christina Perri is. Her songwriting seems to have a little more nuance, but her vocal delivery and the underlying messages of her other songs are so earnest that I'm really not sure if that self-awareness really exists. And while it makes her songs honest in their framing in the songwriting, in capturing that stream of complicated emotions, the tone of the instrumentation and her vocals don't completely capture that nuance. Take 'Lonely Child' - if you're looking to make a song about how you need to come down from the heady rush of new love, maybe it's a poor idea to make the alternative look so depressing or pair the song with Spanish guitar! Or take 'Run', which is really Perri's version of 'I Knew You Were Trouble' by Taylor Swift and while it's better than that song, it has the same logical problem that if you clearly know the relationship is bad news and all of your friends are telling you to run, maybe you shouldn't stick around, and pairing it with a noir atmosphere to romanticize it really doesn't help matters. 

And while there are problems with the songwriting itself, I honestly think most of the problems come down to Christina Perri's delivery - she's a very earnest and expressive performer who'd be great on stage, but she doesn't have a lot of subtlety outside of playing vulnerability - and songs that demand a more complex emotional range like some that she's written don't really stick the landing. Even the better ones I liked don't really rise to being great songs. On top of that, there are tonal problems with some of these songs that really confuse their intentions, and not in a good way. In contrast, I've been relistening through Lacuna Coil's discography in preparation for covering their new album, and I think the reason that band managed to stick with me despite making some sour, bitter, generally miserable music is because the band can keep a consistent tone and has the emotional range to lend greater complexity to these songs. Whereas Christina Perri's straightforward approach works on the simpler material, but really is inadequate when she tries to go deeper beyond vulnerability.

As I said, I want to like this album more than I do. Christina Perri does show more promise on this album than she did on previous works, but learning a more expressive or complex emotional range when singing is an extremely difficult skill to master - hell, it's one of the main reasons certain songs out of my wheelhouse as a singer, I get this problem. Unfortunately, it's still a problem and it's a factor keeping Christina Perri out of my list of favourites. As for the album, as much as the thematic throughline is about balancing the needs of head and heart, Christina Perri's delivery can't hold that balance and it all tips into the 'heart' category, for better or for worse. With that, and the acknowledgement the target audience will love this album and it does land more hits than misses, it's a 6/10 and a very tentative recommendation. But frankly, when we have acts like Adele, Tori Amos, A Fine Frenzy, Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, and plenty others, I still think Christina Perri has a lot of work to do.

No comments:

Post a Comment