Her third album keeps all of these things in check (apart from an unwieldy title) but adds a depth of emotion and a sense of melody that we’ve not previously seen from the New Yorker. It may only last 34 minutes, but by the end of the album you may feel emotionally drained and in need of a bit of a lie down.
It kicks off with one of the finest songs of the year in For Ash – rushing in on a sea of adrenaline, with Stern’s guitar and Zach Hill’s drums seemingly locked in a battle of wills, it sounds like the most exciting thing on earth. When you learn that the song itself is about an ex-boyfriend of Stern’s who committed suicide last year, the chorus of “I cannot bear, no one compares, I miss your smile, sadness all the while” hits you like a punch in the gut.
The ghost of Ash hangs heavy over the album – Cinco De Mayo is particularly cathartic, and almost painful to listen to at times: “How can I explain the cold I’m feeling since you left me, you were the love of my life…there isn’t a fairy tale ending” howls Stern over a typically frantic backing, with seemingly a record number of guitar chords squeezed into one song.
Similarly, it doesn’t take a genius to work out the subject of Risky Biz, with its plaintive lines of “I’ve got something in my soul, pushing me to hold onto the pain” before Stern wistfully intones “you…outshine…them…all”, stretching each word long like elastic. It’s both impossibly thrilling and unbearably poignant – a tricky act to pull off.
Yet, despite the spectre of death and heartache that haunts the tracks here, it’s not a depressing listen in the slightest. On the contrary, every track features some exhilarating guitar work from Stern, while Zach Stern cements his position as one of the most exciting drummers around today, creating such a superb racket that at times it appears he possesses eight arms. The odd self-aware song title such as Female Guitar Players Are The New Black are also guaranteed to raise a smile.
In comparison to her previous albums, there is some variation of tempo. Although the general feel is fast and frenetic, some tracks are slowed down to startling effect. Take the enigmatically titled Transparency Is The New Mystery, featuring a yearning chorus of “it’s not enough… I’m not enough” or the closing The Things You Notice which brings matters to an untypically calm close.
It all adds up to Stern’s most fully realised, most rounded album yet, and a huge step in her evolution as an artist. While she remains steadfastly uncommercial (there’s not going to be any breakout mainstream hits here), this album will likely garner her a large amount of new fans, and is certainly already confirmed as one of the best albums of the year.