Major Arcana – Massachusetts quartet Speedy Ortiz’s 2013 debut album – was a blast: 10 jagged, messy, sweary bursts of noise pop. What it lacked in melodic élan it more than made up for in wit and vim. The band’s upward trajectory continued with last year’s Real Hair EP, which opened with American Horror – perhaps Speedy Ortiz’s best song to date and a promising indicator that they possessed the ability to write big, lapel-grabbing choruses as well as smart, funny lyrics.
As makers of noisy, scuzzy indie rock (and having worked with legendary indie knob-twiddler Paul Q Kolderie), Speedy Ortiz have been compared inevitably to ’90s alt-rock acts such as Veruca Salt, Throwing Muses and (especially) Pavement. Really, though, Speedy Ortiz are a singular proposition. This is attributable solely to guitarist and lead vocalist Sadie Dupuis. Dupuis’ educational background is interesting: she ditched her maths studies at MIT in favour of a creative writing course. And, at the danger of reading too much into it, the twin poles of maths and poetry are the guiding forces of Speedy Ortiz’s music: the maths in the tangential song structures and knotty time signatures; the poetry in Dupuis’ dense, inventive and occasionally inscrutable lyrics.
While Major Arcana was recorded on the hoof, Speedy Ortiz spent a relatively excessive month in the studio on their new album, Foil Deer. While the sound is perhaps a little smoother and brighter than that of their debut, one would have a hard time describing Foil Deer as ‘polished’. Instead, the biggest difference between Foil Deer and its predecessor is its more sombre mood. While lines such as Swell Content’s “I’m not averse to getting salt in my face / Leave me for a week and let me marinade” suggest that the band hasn’t fully embraced maturity, there’s nothing here as gleefully profane as, say, Fun off Major Arcana.
Dupuis still has a way with a funny slogan (witness The Graduates’ “I was the best at being second-best” and Raising The Skate’s “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss”) but several of these songs contain violent, troubling imagery, beginning with opener Good Neck’s “watch your back because baby I’m so good with a blade”. Elsewhere, Dot X follows a couplet that would have fitted in on Major Arcana – “Don’t ever touch my ring, you fool / you’ll be cursed for a lifetime” – with a far darker line: “Don’t ever touch my kid you sick thing”. The album’s low-key highlight, Mister Difficult, appears to pick through the bones of a relationship that might have flared up into violence: “Boys be sensitive and girls be, be aggressive”, Dupuis sings, as if through gritted teeth. “I only hit you first because I deserved my hit too.”
Listeners seeking hooks are likely to feel severely short-changed. The melodic promise offered by last year’s American Horror turns out to have been a false dawn. Only Raising The Skate, My Dead Girl and the summery jangle of The Graduates come close to catchiness, while the cooing backing vocals on Mister Difficult act as a welcome respite the rest of the album’s harshness. Foil Deer isn’t an easy listen but it is a compelling one.