Playing Regina Spektor’s albums in consecutive order is to hear quite the evolution. From the sparse, piano-accompanied songs of her debut, through the inspired madness of Soviet Kitsch, to the glossy, smoothly produced sound of her most recent record Far, the wilful eccentricities have slowly disappeared, but she’s remained very much her own person.
Her sixth album is a bit different, in that it consists of a mix of both new songs and old live favourites, recorded for the very first time, plus a re-recording of the debut album Songs track Ne Me Quitte Pas. A recipe for an uneven mix of styles, so you’d think, but What We Saw From The Cheap Seats is in fact Spektor’s most coherent, satisfying album yet.
For, as gorgeous as both Far and Begin To Hope were in parts, there was always the sense that Spektor’s more creative side had been suppressed. It was always the strange little quirks that gave Spektor her individualism, and on What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, they’re here in spades.
Take a listen to Oh Marchello for example, featuring lots of trademark Spektor yelps and gasps. It sees her imitating a drumbeat, and then blatantly stealing the chorus from Nina Simone‘s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood as its hook. It could only be sung by Regina Spektor, and yet it retains its air of accessibility well.
Those ‘vocal drumbeats’ make a reappearance on the brilliantly urgent All The Rowboats, while she even manages to imitate her own brass section at the end of The Party. It’s little touches like that, together with the dramatic gasps and vocal tics on Open, that will determine whether you find Spektor thrillingly inventive or self-consciously kooky.
If your tastes lie more towards the more recent, more ‘mainstream’ Regina, then there’s also plenty here to appeal. Firewood, a staple of Spektor’s live set for a while, is her most beautiful song since Samson, ending with the profound line of “everyone knows that you’re going to love, though there’s still no cure for the crying”. How, meanwhile, is so lovelorn and tear-jerking it could give Adele a run for her money.
Then there’s Small Town Moon, which manages to mix both sides of Spektor, starting like a conventional piano ballad, before taking in various thrilling tempo changes, a big, stomping, hand-clapping chorus, and a startling vocal performance from Spektor – all wrapped up in exactly three minutes.
The brief Ballad Of A Politician harks back to older tracks like Apres-Moi, Spektor’s Russian heritage sounding noticeable in the track’s atmosphere, and lyrics like “a man inside a room is shaking hands with other men, this is how it happens, our world under command” adding to the rather sinister atmosphere. Don’t Leave Me, the new Anglophied name for Ne Me Quitte Pas, is its polar opposite, a summery celebration of a song, the original’s austere piano arrangement being replaced by a full band.
She probably remains a bit of an acquired taste for some, but What We Saw From The Cheap Seats pulls off the impressive trick of stylistically bouncing about all over the place while retaining a very identifiable vision all of its own.