US: 26 May 2009
UK: 26 May 2009
The cover of Transmitter Failure shows a modest and demure Jenny Owen Youngs looking at the pieces of a radio. While one would imagine she hopes to repair it, the album’s 13 songs offer up a different narrative. Transmitter Failure is a narrative of brokenness, a meditation on the way things don’t fit.
In fact, the opening “First Person”, a 40-second teaser reprised in the tenth track, “Last Person”, proves that Youngs is braced for the risk: “What’s the worst that could happen / We find out that we don’t quite fit “. “First Person” is a cheerful ukelele-based number, melodic and sweet. From “First Person” on, it’s apparent that Youngs is using a very different vocal style than that she employed on Batten The Hatches, her more rough-edged 2007 album that featured “Fuck Was I”, a song featured on Weeds that gave Youngs her first taste of fame.
Rather, Youngs uses Transmitter Failure to showcase her melodic abilities and to deploy the sweetness of her voice, whether she uses it for irony or sincerity or something in between. Usually her delivery is matter-of-fact acceptance of grim situations: “You won’t be happy ‘til we’ve drowned in it / We’re never gonna fit”, she sings in “Led to the Sea”, invoking the theme of lovers not fitting. This delivery persists through the next track, “Dissolve”, which concludes with an unsentimental “We’re dirt, we’re bones, we’re dust / There’s nothing left of us”.
With the repeated lyrical themes, the similarly delivered vocals, and the often-standard instrumentation that frequently drown out Youngs’s voice, the moments when Transmitter Failure works are the ones when Youngs offers listeners something new. Fortunately, this happens early and often, although the choruses of many songs revert to this pattern too easily. “Here is a Heart” is a unique moment, and a gorgeous one at that, featuring all of Youngs’s trademark dark humor (“Here is a heart / …battered and braised, grilled and sautéed”) occasionally yielding to vulnerability: “If you evaporate the seas will rise ‘til they devour the sky”. Dan Romer’s keyboard work, reminiscent of a music box, especially adds to the piece.
“Clean Break”, which follows “Here is My Heart”, is another highlight, namely for its unpredictable pattern: a guitar solo leads into a square-dance-worthy verse with Youngs’s voice acting as macabre caller: “Just sterilize the scalpel and let’s get this over with”. “Clean Break” is a strangely perfect match of form and content that suits Youngs’s talents well. “What Beats Within”, with its accordion and ukulele, works carnival music into straight-up rock rather well. “No More Words” is a special highlight, taking six and a half minutes to work its way through all sorts of terrain. The changes throughout happen slowly, but the listener feels pleasantly transformed and inexplicably purified by the song’s end.
“Nighty Night” contributes a lovely, strings-enhanced waltz to the album. Yet what isn’t strange is that such a waltz is on the album, but that there are actually optimistic, romantic lyrics accompanying it: “Out of the darkness we’ll find a way”, the chorus affirms. The lush strings help the song transition seamlessly into the title track, which quickly becomes the folk ballad the album for which the album has been begging throughout. “Start + Stop”, a number for ukulele and vocals, is a pleasant enough closer but feels more like a secret track than the album signing off.
This transmitter is far from a failure, but there is a loose cog in the machinery. Youngs’s songwriting would come through loud and clear with better production to showcase it, or more sparse instrumentation to set it apart and not overwhelm listeners with the density of sound that most songs pack. There are even moments within the album where Youngs herself makes the case for different instrumental choices—“Here is a Heart” features actual strings, whereas the use of synthesized strings on “If I Didn’t Know” make the song a more generic version of what it could have been. Sometimes whole songs succumb to this (“If I Didn’t Know” and “Secrets”), limiting their own potential and also presenting more fog for the listener between the moments of greatness this album achieves. The placement of the great songs is not always strategic, either—“No More Words” is a closer if ever there was one, and the four songs that follow feel strangely taxing.
Youngs is just beginning her career, and the elements of her talent are clearly present, as is her ability to conceptualize an album, rather than a collection of songs. With a little time, her songs will surely catch up to her talents, and there will be no stopping the transmission then.