The evolution of the female solo artist over the past fifteen years has been a curious one. My generation grew up on solid, strong voices with apparent themes and lyrical twists. Tori Amos, Beth Orton, and Bjork were wildly different, but carried about them an obvious gravity; even Liz Phair’s sexual irreverence was rooted in the serious problem of sexual inequality.
Through the years, this picture of the solo female as singer-songwriter has shifted in interesting and probably heartening ways; these days, we’re more than familiar with Ida Maria, Lily Allen, Marnie Stern, and Kate Nash as figures that do their share to hold up images that are strong, but with a sense of irreverence. It’s somewhere in between the perceptions of serious, earthy songwriters and saucy, somewhat edgy singers that Polly Scattergood emerges; a forceful, breathy set of vocals taking precedence over a backdrop of ethereal sound.
It’s almost as if Scattergood has taken the best moments of the last 20 years in female rock history and studied them closely. Layered between moments of bare piano tracks are synthesizer-driven beats, creating an almost shockingly poignant soundscape. From the keyboard-heavy crescendos of “I Hate The Way”, it becomes clear that Scattergood’s forte is sadness. “My doctor said I’ve got to sing a happy tune,” she sings after weaving a tale of stark heartache, creating a wonderful and wrenching ending that evokes Marissa Nadler’s best lines.
Where Scattergood makes her true mark is in the ability to weave lyrical thickness with driving melody; “Other Too Endless”, “Please Don’t Touch”, and “Bunny Club” stand out immediately as very obvious and very British singles, though each track is laced with dark and contrasting imagery. Through the course of the album, her voice becomes a uniting factor, able to traverse both the twisted and the sweet through the album’s course. “Please Don’t Touch” hits a lilting note remniscent of Allen or Nash, where “Bunny Club”‘s melody simply haunts.
It’s difficult not to find Scattergood’s work compelling from the very beginning, though it may take a few listens to make sense of the record as a whole. This is by no means a medley of sounds and moods; rather, it’s a well-orchestrated whole that executes each musical shift with a smooth elegance. What’s most remarkable is that no matter how far into the depths of despair Scattergood reaches (and when she channels death by suicide as in “Untitled 27″ or by cancer in “Breathe In Breathe Out”, those depths are very deep), her work retains a strange sense of hope. Polly Scattergood succeeds in evoking the serious while nodding at the irreverent, making for a most impressive debut.