What does one do when faced with a spirit as elemental and electric as Regina Spektor? The natural response is an awestruck infatuation, at least if you’re a guy of a certain age. I’m not immune. I remember seeing her perform at a homecoming show at the Warsaw in Brooklyn. Afterwards, she swept past in a blur of red lipstick/brown curls, and my companion reflexively stuck out a hand. “Congratulations!” he said. “Thank you,” she said, not stopping. Years later, we both remember. She was a vision as present in that small moment as the larger-than-life figure of her music videos and magazine profiles.
Part of what makes her so addictive, of course, is the persona she has created from the beginning. On Songs and Soviet Kitsch, her characters are quirky but deep-feeling, and engage in the kind of stupidity and confusion most of us can easily identify with. There are messy love affairs, carefree odes to New York, and this unexpectedly sharp, flickering disdain for shallow people. At the same time, Spektor demonstrated early on that her cabaret-performer roots were just a springboard—the pop moments on Soviet Kitsch, e.g., are near-perfect. (And, oh, there’s “Us”.) Begin to Hope took these tendencies further, edging the balance of pop:quirk towards pop and, yeah, eliciting some squeals from the faithful at the saccharine pizzicati and sentimentality of some of the material. For all its mainstream orchestrations, the album retained a strong sense of character. And she still sang about little bags of cocaine and overdosing and this haunting loneliness of summer in the city—in other words, it was the same messy/vital Regina Spektor.
There’s a natural but sometimes depressing career path for singer-songwriters that starts in acidic idiosyncrasy and ends in balladry and confluent cliché. (Ben Folds, and The Whitlams’ Tim Freedman, are two relatively recent examples.) Spektor’s not there yet, but Far, her new album, will likely be criticized for its continuing drift towards the centre. In a short interview with PopMatters in 2007, Spektor said, “I love the people who were always changing, always looking for a new way forward. People like Madonna and Dylan, who’ve lasted for a long time because they make their own space and then bring us into it. People who can grow and change and take us with them.” The space she’s inhabiting now is less personal, more narrative. These are new characters: a frustrated waiter stuck in a small town; a humble church-goer; the owner of a lost wallet. As she delves into these often poignant subjects, though, Spektor is veering away from what made her most appealing in the first place—her own personality.
That’s probably why things feel different on Far. It’s as if the lightness across Begin to Hope were all drained up. No longer bouncing on pizzicato strings, Spektor instead chooses to return to the sedate piano accompaniments of her earlier work, filled out this time with synths, organ, or a growl of electric guitar. There is the occasional unexpected arrangement or vocal trick that we’ve come to expect from Spektor—most notably on a song called “Machine”. Filling the same slot as “Apres Moi”, the rattling piano bass arpeggii are this time accompanied by the crunch of distortion and a clicking percussion track. Then there’s the gloriously silly “The Folding Chair”, a persistent, attractive song that includes a dolphin impression. Incidentally, 2009 may be the year of aging hipsters imagining families; first it was Casiotone for the Painfully Alone singing about raising the kids on “Schlitz and Mickey Mouse”, here it’s all safety-pinning pants and graffiting up toys.
Her song structures are also becoming more predictable—slow piano introduction, lite-radio percussion, fuller second chorus, perhaps a return to sedate coda. The two songs that have been circulating from the album pre-release, “Blue Lips” and “Laughing With”, are fine songs with something of Spektor’s skewed perspective, but they won’t be remembered as her best. And elsewhere, though there are a few flashes of her previous thrillingly inventive take on the genre, a few too many songs fall into familiar melodic and structural boxes.
Regardless of what critics end up saying about Far, it’s more or less guaranteed a positive reception from the fans who play guitar and sing into webcams and upload them to YouTube. Plenty of that went on post-Begin to Hope. But as she gets more widely known, more popular, Regina Spektor will paradoxically have to work harder to maintain that persona she’s built up over the past eight years. The old fans want that feeling of discovery again, the new ones can have their sweet melodies. It’s not as if Spektor’s lost it all, though—truth is, she doesn’t have to do too much. Just say in that childlike voice, “Hello, hello, calling a Karl Projectorinski to the front.” If anyone’s in the running for human of the year, it’s you.