Thursday, April 26, 2018

album review: 'primal heart' by kimbra

Man, it's been a while since I've had such mixed feelings going into a review.

And to explain why, we need to go back to 2012 - the pop charts are being overrun with out-of-nowhere indie breakthroughs, and 'Somebody That I Used To Know' is becoming one of the biggest sleeper hits of the 2010s. But Kimbra had gotten her start earlier with an off-kilter brand of indie pop that took old school glamour and spent an album driving noisy spikes into it. Occasionally unsettling but frequently compelling, Vows was a really damn potent indie debut, and her collaboration with Gotye seemed to give Kimbra the opening she needed...

And then in 2014 we got The Golden Echo. Now I'll freely admit my review of that record is not one of my best, but the record as a whole didn't hold up then and four years haven't improved it. Critical and commercial momentum hit a brick wall as her characteristically unstable and overwrought production collided with R&B and 90s pop-inspired tones, muddying her usually sharp satirical edge, and her choice to stick almost entirely with her cooing upper register made an already overlong record a chore to get through. Now don't get me wrong, there were some high points that made it compelling, but it's a little understandable it's been four years since that release, and there were major shakeups in the production staff, bringing on John Congleton as a major co-producer and also nabbing credits from Natasha Bedingfield and Skrillex. And considering how often this record had been pushed back, I didn't really have high expectations but I at least hoped Kimbra could make a return to form, especially as Vows has held up to this day. So alright, what did we get with Primal Heart?

Honestly... I'm not sure if it's right to call this a return to form, especially as thematically so much of this record is about never going back, but the time away from the spotlight did Kimbra a fair amount of good, because this is a pretty likable record. Not quite great or on the level of Vows, at least for me, but for certain a step towards a more controlled sound that takes the messy eccentricities that made The Golden Echo so frustrating and  refined them into a tighter, more rewarding sound, and it's genuinely surprising this record isn't getting more attention for that.

Granted, part of that might be because Kimbra is still a tough artist for some to appreciate, and to some extent the mess of contradictions of her persona are still visible on this record, starting with her delivery. To her credit, she does spend a lot more time in her richer lower register on this album and when she does move towards higher notes she uses well-placed multi-tracking that can lead to some really beautiful arrangements, like the breathy cushion of 'Like They Do On The TV' or the cooing backdrop of the vintage pop-leanings of 'Past Love' or the shimmering mid-80s synth-heavy R&B hooks of 'Right Direction' and 'Everybody Knows', easily the high points of the album. But at the same time, when she doesn't have that cushion... well, songs like 'Recovery' do remind me of her earlier work where the vocal production is more spare and I do like her vocal timbre, but songs like 'Lightyears' demand belting she just can't deliver with significant presence, and when she's opposite more of Skrillex's production on 'Top Of The World' with flows trending towards more of a trap sound, she just doesn't have the weight in her voice to convincingly pull off that brand of hype at that point of her register. And while I'm on the topic of nitpicking what doesn't work, whenever this record starts trending towards a more modern brand of pop with a bassy low end, snaps, and sparse hi-hats like 'The Good War' and 'Human', even if in the latter case where she's given more space to really breathe, it's touching on a tone that just doesn't have the same colour or flair as what Kimbra can bring to the table more effectively. I'll say it, as much as 'Top Of The World' sounds like a mainstream version of a tune-yards song, when Kimbra introduces the blocky slices of synth that blow the song wide open, especially against the more ethereal backing vocals, it's what makes the track far more distinctive and memorable. And really, many of these songs are the exception to the primary tonal palette of this record: spiky low-end grooves, glossy buzzy synths, and razor-tight layering with the aid of John Congleton that reminds me more of early-to-mid 80s synthpop or mid-80s R&B - or artists like Shura, CHVRCHES, and especially Carly Rae Jepsen who call upon it. And really, with songs like 'Everybody Knows', 'Right Direction', the darker spacey echoes of 'Black Sky' or even the deeply restrained minimalism of 'Version Of Me', Kimbra proves more than capable of playing in this lane with just enough of a flair for off-kilter tuning or melody to own it - hell, look how the keys on 'Like They Do On The TV' which could have come from an Arca song are set against that saxophone and noisier synths that are decidedly Kimbra's own.

Now of course one of the biggest draws for Kimbra is the content and songwriting... and also where I think many people will not give this record the credit it deserves. Now there's always been a satirical side to much of Kimbra's work, but what gives Primal Heart its power is how often said satire is turned inwards on herself, likely her most self-critical and by far her most self-aware. 'Top Of The World' is the most obvious case, where her bragging feels increasingly flimsy and deconstructed as she realizes she's been sold a chase and a progression where she's bound to be torn down, even despite the fans praying for her success, but even a track before that she confesses her own insecurity surrounding the potential path she might be on. And even while she might point fingers at those who tried to exploit her - and 'Everybody Knows' is pretty damn effective just being a straightforward kiss-off - what's telling is that the usage of the pronoun 'you' across most of this record is intended as referring to herself, or at the very least her artistic persona and ego. It makes breakup songs less about an unknown partner and more about coping with your distance from your past trajectory, especially when you don't have a clear idea of where you're going now. And that's one of the big reasons the ambiguity of these songs have such weight - why confronting the primal core of one's ego on 'Human' is framed as deeply intimidating and fearful, why the artificial distance from her emotions on 'Lightyears' is so frenetic, why she acknowledges the distance she's put forward from her emotions towards her past is artificial on 'Recovery'... but at the core it's an artificiality that's necessary, because you can't change the past and you have to keep moving forward, regardless of how agonizing or confusing that might be, and also why the final third of this record in finding some reconciliation with that past is so heartbreaking and with songs like 'Version Of Me' shows Kimbra more vulnerable than she has ever been. Now granted, you could make the argument that said vulnerability might have more weight if presented towards another and not just herself, but if you're on-board for this arc, the delivery still brings real weight, and that makes the chilly, autotuned a capella of the final song 'Real Life' connect - it might be artificial to keep moving forward like this is, certainly lack some of the self-destructive glamour of 'Past Life', but it's necessary all the same.

In short... I think this record will have to grow on a lot of people, because there are confessional layers to this project that those not willing to take Kimbra seriously will not see, at least not immediately. And part of this is because, by design, this record is transitional. But Kimbra's poise and execution of that transition makes for not just her most accessible record to date, but arguably her most heartfelt and intimate, along with some of her best ever hooks. So for me... yeah, 7/10, definitely recommended if you want to hear what Kimbra is up to years after The Golden Echo and even longer after the mainstream spotlight has faded, and definitely the sort of artist I'm happy to have back on the stage.

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