[16 June 2009]
For reviewers writing about the work of new female musicians, the Kate Bush Comparison remains the laziest critical shorthand that there is, and one that’s still far too frequently wheeled out as a substitute for proper engagement with the work of a new artist. Without wishing in any way to undervalue Bush’s impact on both male and female performers, it seems that her influence may now be being overstated; this is, after all, an artist who has offered us a mere eight albums and just one tour in 30 years. The greatest sufferer from the Bush Comparison has always been Tori Amos, who, 10 albums and 1000 live shows on, still finds reviewers myopically concentrating on the superficial similarities that link her work to Bush’s rather than the massive disparities in performance style, vocal approach, lyric content, and career philosophy that differentiate them.
What’s worrying is the accusatory and diminishing tone in which these comparison criticisms are often phrased. While it’s apparently perfectly valid for male artists to derive “inspiration” from one another, comparable relationships between female musicians are usually described as simple parasitism, as copying or stealing. Overall, such comments suggest that the majority of music reviewers are still reluctant to properly attend to or appreciate the differences in work by women composers, preferring, instead, to view them as an entirely homogenous group who get by by blatantly ripping each other (or, rather, Bush) off. And while it seems that there can never be enough male guitar bands (no matter how samey), just a few high-profile women with pianos is quickly deemed more than enough
So it should come as no surprise that the debut album by English singer-songwriter Polly Scattergood has been greeted with the usual flurry of Bush comparisons in the British press. A graduate of the BRIT School, where she composed around 800 songs, Scattergood’s music may initially appear to bear some similarity to Bush’s in its arty-but-accessible approach. On closer inspection, though, the album reveals itself to have little in common with Bush’s work at all. Where Bush’s best songs are character-based, theatrical, and externally-focused, seemingly with few direct connections to her own experience, Scattergood’s music feels mostly personal and interior, a little closer in spirit, in that sense, to early Amos, though less cutting in its insights or dense in its metaphors.
Musically, the album combines intimate singer-songwriter confessionals with the current vogue for synthpop, augmenting its ten songs with appealing poppy nuances and hooks. (In another particularly choice bit of gender bias, one reviewer has suggested that the album’s emotional candour would be “unbearable” were it not for the leavening intervention of Scattergood’s male producer Simon Fisher Turner.) Vocally, Scattergood favours a clear, upfront approach, thankfully avoiding the awful affected Americanisms of fellow BRIT Schoolers Amy Winehouse and Adele. But, unlike Bush, she doesn’t pin you to the wall with piercing high notes, and at no time does she adopt a Cockney or Australian accent. (Though, oddly, at their quietest, her vocals do strongly resemble those of low-key Aussie singer Holly Throsby.) No songs are sung from the perspective of literary heroines on this album. There are no big-name cameos, not even Rolf Harris. In sum, Polly Scattergood does not sound like Kate Bush. She sounds like … well, Polly Scattergood.
The lengthy “I Hate The Way” opens the album compellingly, beginning with Scattergood’s whispered, confiding vocals, passing through a strident guitar motif and building to an off-kilter spoken-word coda. “Maybe if I skip my dinner / Make myself pretty and thinner / Maybe then he’ll love me / And stop looking at the other girls”, Scattergood wonders, desperately. Indeed, even the poppiest, jauntiest moments here—such as the superb “Other Too Endless” and the infectious “Please Don’t Touch”—retain a delightful melancholy undertow in their explorations of relationship ambivalence. “I Am Strong” starts sedately but then picks up pace and a clubby beat, while the more ambitious songs “Bunny Club” and “Nitrogen Pink” are dynamic and cleverly detailed. The quieter moments are also nicely nuanced, and the elegant “Poem Song” and closer “Breathe In Breathe Out” are touching piano ballads.
It’s pleasing, too, that the wonderfully-named Scattergood has eschewed the St. Vincent/Bat For Lashes/Blue Roses vogue for hiding behind a pseudonym. Despite the often layered sound, and a cover image that depicts her sheltering behind her hair, emotionally Scattergood isn’t really hiding behind anything here, and her ingenuousness is for the most part disarming. Inevitably this approach also results in some awkward, gauche moments: Scattergood’s lyrics can clunk, with odd swerves into banality (“Make another cuppa / On the sofa eating marmalade”) and prosy therapy-speak (“I try not to let my insecurities / Dictate who I am and who I want to be”), while the attempts at edginess—“You can spit on my French knickers / You can call me a whore”—sometimes feel forced. Overall, though, this open-hearted and engaging record boasts enough memorable moments to suggest that Scattergood has a promising future ahead of her.