Russian-born, New York-based Regina Spektor, like Tori Amos and Kate Bush before her, is the latest performer to be consistently labelled by lazy music journalists as “kooky.” Look it up in the dictionary and you’ll see it’s defined as “strange” or “eccentric,” neither of which needs to be interpreted negatively, but just ask Amos and Bush and you’ll find it’s rarely used flatteringly.
It’s easier to paint Bush as a reclusive genius and Amos as what one writer called “a shivering forest waif who believes in faeries and writes songs about masturbating to images of Jesus” than it is to engage with their music and truly attempt to understand what it is they’ve created. Similarly, recent profiles and reviews have often described Spektor as “kooky.” She’s also been called “odd,” “affected” and “downright peculiar.”
Like Amos, who once declared herself to be the musical equivalent of anchovies – “I know I’m an acquired taste, and not everyone wants those hairy little things” – Spektor is garnering a formidable reputation for her disarming, uncompromising eccentricity and capacious brilliance as both a musician and a lyricist. Prolific? Experimental? Singular? Yes. But affected? Well, no.
Since 1999, Spektor has released five wide-ranging, highly ambitious albums, two of them self-financed and self-released. Her latest, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, is yet another collection of songs that is by turns wry, humorous, touching and emotionally revelatory, all while managing to never be anything less than utterly engaging.
The album opens with the piano-driven ‘Small Town Moon,’ an ode to the difficulty of leaving one’s provincial hometown for the bright lights of the big city. It muses on the impermanence of youth – ‘I wish you wouldn’t have broken my camera / ‘Cause we’re gonna get real old real soon / Today we’re younger than we’re ever gonna be’ and intersperses individual verses with the repeated refrain: ‘How can I leave without hurting everyone who made me?’
Like most of Spektor’s songs, it’s not obviously autobiographical but it is a first-person narrative that is representative of her multifaceted abilities as a storyteller. To hear her sing it, you’d never know the story is not her own, so fully felt and convincingly delivered is her vocal.
So vast is her songbook that she has said she often draws on songs written up to a decade ago. Indeed, here Spektor reinvents one song, ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas,’ which first appeared on her self-released 2002 album, Songs, as the jaunty ‘Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)’ and records a song that has long been a favourite in her live repertoire, ‘Patron Saint.’ Whereas the power of many performers’ songs comes from the knowledge that their writer has mined his or her own experiences, Spektor has admitted that she primarily writes stories about others and rarely from her own perspective.
What We Saw From The Cheap Seats features many such songs, all of them skillfully upheld upright by Spektor’s inventive melodies, startlingly strong vocals, classically trained piano and her talents as a witty, often moving and whimsical wordsmith.
On ‘Oh Marcello,’ Spektor’s vocals ricochet wildly as she sings, in a thick Italian accent, from the viewpoint of a woman ensconced in prayer who, it transpires, is feverishly praying because she’s afraid her unborn son might grow up to be a serial killer. To add to the song’s off-kilter musical mix, Spektor blends her own composition with an interpolation of ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,’ made famous in wildly different recordings by Nina Simone and The Animals.
It’s not conventional songwriting fare, to be sure, but it’s the sort of disparate, singular song that makes Spektor the maverick that she is – she’s utterly unlike any other musician out there today, unafraid to experiment and mimic, to invoke accents or beat-box drum solos, as she does on both ‘Oh Marcello’ and first single, ‘All The Rowboats.’ The latter embodies perhaps one of Spektor’s most brilliantly inventive uses of metaphor to date as she compares art galleries and museums to graveyards.
The paintings and artifacts on display are ‘masterpieces serving maximum sentences’ in a jail where ‘first there’s lights out, then there’s lock-up.’ She declares: ‘All the galleries and museums / “Here’s your ticket, welcome to the tombs” / They’re just public mausoleums / The living dead fill every room.’ Ever the musician, it’s the fate of the musical instruments she especially laments: ‘The most special are the most lonely / God, I pity the violins / In glass coffins, they keep coughing / They’ve forgotten, forgotten how to sing.’
Spektor has again collaborated with Mike Elizondo, who produced a handful of songs on her previous album, 2009’s Far. The pairing is clearly an inspired one because not a single song feels wrongly interpreted or over-produced. Spektor’s vocal affectations are often cited by those who dislike her as unnecessary, jarring or irritating, but she’s judicious in her use of them – the audible gulps of air that she takes on the dramatic, quietly rousing ‘Open’ feel entirely appropriate, given the mood and tone of the song, as does the mouth trumpet that closes ‘The Party,’ a sweet but sad tune that deals with doomed love, heartbreak and memories of past friends and lovers.
Indeed, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats boasts several lovely, gentle and understated ballads. Lyrically, much of the album explores different facets of the passing of time and the passage of youth. On ‘How,’ a piano ballad in which she sings from the point-of-view of a wounded lover, wondering how he or she will forget the person that broke their heart, move on and meet somebody new and fall in love again, there’s both weariness and the faint hope for better things to come.
‘Firewood’ is an achingly sad, nostalgic meditation on time and the persistence and power of memory. It moves back and forth between the past and present, merging musings on childhood with ponderings about love and mortality in lines like ‘You’ll take the clock off of your wall / And you’ll wish that it was lying.’ It’s wistful, moving stuff that never defaults to overt or affected sentimentality and is all the more powerful for it, as is ‘Jessica’ on which Spektor confesses ‘I can’t write a song for you / I’m out of melodies’ as she quietly implores the titular Jessica to ‘Please, wake up / It’s February again and we must get older / So wake up.’
There’s also the melodically restrained but lyrically brutal, withering takedown of manipulative, Machiavellian politicians on ‘Ballad of a Politician.’ The album’s deluxe version contains even richer pickings, among them ‘Call Them Brothers,’ a folk-tinged duet Spektor penned and recorded with her husband, Jack Dishel of The Moldy Peaches and Only Son, and two extraordinary renditions of traditional Russian folk songs written by philosopher and writer Bulat Okudzhava.
On both ‘The Prayer of Francois Villon (Molitva)’ and ‘Old Jacket (Stariy Pidjak)’ Spektor sings her heart out in her native tongue and these songs alone are reason enough to seek out the limited edition release. They, like most everything on What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, offer glimpses into the vivid, expansive imagination of Regina Spektor. She’s one of the most eclectic and unselfconsciously experimental singer/songwriters of her, or any other, generation. Anybody who thinks she’s all quirks and no substance not only does her a disservice but also underestimates her at their own peril.
What We Saw From The Cheap Seats is out now through Warner Music Australia.