Faced with the task of following up her excellent 2013 self-titled debut LP, Mackenzie Scott (who records under the name Torres) decamped from Brooklyn to Bridport, Dorset. One could not wish for a more pacific (atlantic?) recording location, but the resulting album, Sprinter, is anything but laid back. Instead, it’s an intense, emotionally bruising work whose nine tracks touch upon abandonment, religion, depression and abuse.
The catalyst behind Scott’s temporary relocation was Rob Ellis, drummer for and long-time collaborator with PJ Harvey. Ellis attended a Torres gig in London, was bowled over by her performance and subsequently invited her to record in Westcountry, where a coterie of performers were assembled to help guide the album to completion. Among these are Portishead’s Adrian Utley, slide guitarist BJ Cole, electronic musician Scanner and, notably, Ian Olliver – the bass player who appeared on PJ Harvey’s debut Dry, and who currently works as a policeman.
Sprinter’s first track Strange Hellos pulls off a similar trick to that of the opening, titular track of PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me: it starts off quietly, but then explodes into life, scaring the bejesus out of the listener in the process. This – alongside some vocal inflections that recall 1992-95-era Polly Harvey– may lead one to believe that Torres’s trans-Atlantic flight was a barefaced attempt to emulate a musical hero. But, really, the opening minute and the occasional vocal turn aside, Torres sounds like no one else but herself.
The album opens with the words “Heather, I’m sorry that your mother / diseased in the brain / cannot recall your name” and the intensity doesn’t let up over the course of the remaining 45 minutes. Second track New Skin describes a form of reinvention – “ready to wrap me up / ready to love me in this new skin I’m filling in”- but this is no anthem of self-improvement: instead, the narrator seems to be escaping a past trauma (“I am a tired woman … In Kansas City I was undressed and bested”).
After that gruelling opening brace of tracks, the listener could do with a respite. Instead, the intensity is ratcheted up on Son You Are No Island. In a recent interview, Scott said the track was “my attempt at being the voice of God”. Torres’s God proves a remarkably vindictive one, fixated on the humiliation of one particular individual – perhaps an ex-lover: “Son, you are no chasm / Your voice holds no mystique to be unearthed”. The song closes with a spine-chilling threat: “Son, you’re not a man yet / You fucked with a woman who would know.” It is, frankly, terrifying.
The album’s middle section offers some relief. A Proper Polish Welcome is – fittingly – warm and inviting, reminiscent of November Baby on the debut album. New Skin’s theme of escapism is revisited on the title track, where the verses speak of small-town scandal – the pastor who “went down for pornography” – while the uplifting choruses burst with pride and relief. Ultimately though, Sprinter’s status as a dark, bruising work is reinforced by two tracks near its end: first, the almost unbearably downbeat Ferris Wheel (“I’ve got the sadness too”) and the closing The Exchange, which describes her mother’s adoption and ends with the repeated refrain “I’m underwater”.
Musically, this is an austere album. Despite its illustrious roll call of guest musicians, Scott’s voice and guitar are the predominant instruments on Sprinter. Strange Hellos’ ’90s-vintage guitar solo and Cowboy Guilt’s robotic, synthetic arrangement are the only moments that fall beyond the album’s monochrome pallet.
It all adds up to an emotionally gruelling record that’s patently not intended for passive listening. But it’s an album that’s worth steeling oneself for: Sprinter is devastatingly beautiful collection that’s among the year’s very best so far.