South Africa’s Dear Reader, the solo-project front for 28-year-old Cheri MacNeil, has undergone some drastic changes in the period between 2009’s debut album Replace Why With Funny and the follow up, entitled Idealistic Animals. MacNeil has had to adapt to the decision – although an amicable one – of her former bandmate, producer and bassist Darryl Torr, to part ways with Dear Reader to concentrate on his burgeoning career as a producer.
She has also had to address the loss of her fundamental belief in religion, something to which she devoted her life in a manner that she now admits was almost fanatical. “Faith made me feel like I meant something, that I had a purpose and a role to play in a greater narrative,” MacNeil explained in a recent interview. Understandably, her loss of belief has had an impact on Idealistic Animals, evident in its heartbreaking honesty and in MacNeil’s beautiful but fragile vocals.
The album opens with the stunning, stripped-back and elegiac FOX (Take Your Chances), a song that is both measured and suitably melancholic, with MacNeil’s lyrics capturing her struggle with religion: “The horizons black with smoke / they say there is no hope / this is the coming of the lord / but he’s not got to us yet.” It’s followed by the rumbling and upbeat MONKEY (You Can Go Home) and the quaint, soothing tones of the Feist-esque MOLE (Mole). The haunting and foreboding MAN (Idealistic Animals) proves another pivotal moment on the album, highlighting the growing cynicism that has recently characterised McNeil’s worldview.
This album is certainly more reflective and heartfelt than its predecessor, while also managing to retain the folky undertones and passionate vocal delivery that made Replace Why With Funny such a satisfying debut. EARTHWORM (All Hail Our Ailing Mother) is a gorgeous acoustic track, one that recalls the mesmerising simplicity of Joni Mitchell, with McNeil’s cascading vocals pulling at the heartstrings once more. It’s one of the highlights on Idealistic Animals, along with the opening track, and it shows McNeil’s ability to pen songs that captivate the listener from start to finish.
There is a distinctive shift in sound towards the end of the album, from the mournful, delicate first half to a slightly more jaunty second half. WHALE (BooHoo) sees the introduction of trumpets as MacNeil’s lyrics imagine her as a giant wave overwhelming New York. The track demonstrates MacNeil’s inventiveness and her ability to differentiate herself from similar female singer-songwriters, although it does plod along during the verse before being saved by an uplifting chorus. BEAR (Young’s Done In) makes an enterprising use of a shiny, pop melody, layered on top of a crashing drum beat, while ELEPHANT (Hearter) drifts aimlessly towards a disappointingly unfulfilling conclusion.
Although Dear Reader’s second album still possesses MacNeil’s lyrical charm and the alluring vocals that made the first LP so engaging, it suffers under the weight of its own seriousness. While MacNeil must be commended for baring her soul with such candor during the record, Idealistic Animals does lag towards the end. There is, though, still a lot to admire about the album. The production of Brent Knopf (Ramona Falls) manages to give Idealistic Animals a clear, concise sound, even with all the different ideas that MacNeil juggles with – one that doesn’t take away any of the emotion of the finished product. It’s far from perfect, but Dear Reader’s Idealistic Animals is undoubtedly a bold second album, with the almost cathartic outpouring from MacNeil giving it an unnerving and eerie beauty.