The ideal music for heavy evenings as the summer begins to slip away is sugar-sweet pop with a dark underbelly. It’s lucky then that Theoretical Girl, aka Amy Turnnidge, is here to provide it. Peddling Black Box Recorder-style melancholic lyrics over perfect pop sensibilities, she’s the type of act that might just hijack the charts if the masses don’t pay too much attention.
With a strong musical heritage and impressive pedigree behind her (she began studying violin at London’s Guildhall School of Music at the age of five), it’s not surprising that she can hold a good tune. Tarted up at times with ’80s pop electronics, at others with Weimar Republic music hall orchestrations, this is music that will win your heart before twisting it apart with the very next line.
Titles such as I Should Have Loved You More, A Future Apart and Never Good Enough provide the first impression that everything is not as rosy as it seems and, before long, it becomes clear that neither is TG the twee-popette she could easily be mistaken for. This is indie-pop at close to its best, twisting the genre to its limits while slavishly obeying all the rules – at least until it decides to chew them up, swill them around in Jack Daniels’ and spit them out.
Turnnidge’s voice is breathy and crisp, perfect for lulling the unwary listener into a false sense of security. But it’s not long before the cheery backbeat of early tracks Rivals and The Boy I Left Behind start to seep it away. By the time the album reaches its title track it’s obvious where things are going. Next comes Red Mist, a Kurt Weill-esque stomp suffused with the comedown paranoia of the New Romantics’ last dance – think Propaganda or Echo And The Bunnymen in midnight bars with heavy velvet curtains, under the kindly tutelage of Kirsty MacColl’s ghost.
Never Good Enough is particularly dark, the sentiment repeated in layers over a mournful and resigned violin that’s all the more powerful for the beauty with which the apologetic lyric is delivered. The song that follows it, Good Timing, could soundtrack an arthouse movie on desolation, while Seeing You Again is an equally aching piano lament.
The album gets darker as it goes along, as though the listener needs to be lowered into it slowly lest they break, which is too clever by half but all the better for it. There’s no reason why pop can’t be supremely educated and eminently listenable at the same time.
With her former band The Equations, Turnnidge has been around for close to four years now, since her 2006 EP It’s All Too Much gave us a tantalising indication of what was to come. More recently, she’s been touring across Europe and, with backing from the Performing Rights Society, played SXSW in the US and managed two sets at this year’s Glastonbury. It’s a huge advantage that the years of relative success haven’t mellowed her. Rivals is dark, deep, mournful and rich while still managing to be a beautiful pop album. You can’t ask for much more than that.