One of pop’s most idiosyncratic talents returns with a low-key, restrained yet lucid work
King Princess is an artist at the vanguard of a new generation of alternative pop stars operating in ostensibly pure pop lanes but doing so in their own idiosyncratic style. On her second album Hold On Baby, Brooklyn based alt pop icon Mikaela Straus carries on melding her songcraft to experimental stylings.
There’s always been an elusive and mysterious quality to King Princess’ music, a sense that it can go in any direction. Here, you don’t quite get that same impression; instead there’s an enhanced clarity and lucidity to her work. It’s a clarity that adds much to songs like the understated but quietly blossoming opening track I Hate Myself, I Want To Party. A song of defiance with its refrain of “I don’t wanna live like that”, it acts as something of a totem for King Princess’ whole modus operandi.
The distinctiveness of King Princess’ character and production and songwriting skills carries some of the moments when the album strives for earnestness and a sense of importance, but throughout you yearn for some more playfulness and exuberance. In short it could do with a song like the incredible past single Pussy Is God. The vibe though is a little different this time.
Generally the album, produced alongside Mark Ronson, Ethan Gruska, Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Dave Hamelin, Shawn Everett and Tobias Jesso Jr, with further contributions from Zach Fogarty, Amy Allen and Fousheé, is characterised by a more low-key classic approach. There are fewer subversive twists but they’re still here, and when they come they sound more vital and amplified than ever. See for example the warped slinky groove of Too Bad, on which Straus sounds at her most self assured and stylish. Elsewhere, Change The Locks’ plaintive, widescreen dreaming sounds genuinely affecting, while closing track Let Us Die provides an invigorating climax.
Despite the strength of many of the songs here, and with absolutely none of King Princess’ supreme talent has been diminished, there’s a feeling that something is being held back. That might be intentional, but in a period where other alt pop stars like Rina Sawayama are taking things up a number of levels, the restrained nature of much of this album feels a little disappointing. It straddles a strange position of neither being coherent enough or too richly defined. The quality though, crucially, remains high throughout.
Hold My Baby emphasises King Princess’ position as one of pop’s most singular talents, but doesn’t drive home the point quite in the way you feel it should. Perhaps that makes it an even more interesting listen.