It’s a shame that Kimbra Lee Johnson (just “Kimbra” professionally) is largely relegated stateside as “that girl in the Gotye song.” If there remains any justice in today’s music industry, the New Zealand singer’s debut album, Vows, will correct that disservice, proving Kimbra is a talent ripe enough not to need the crutch of a one-off pop duet. Of course, the irony here is that without that collaboration, there likely wouldn’t be quite the demand for Vows to finally see a U.S. release, close to a year after it appeared on Oceania record store shelves.
The most immediate impression Vows delivers is Kimbra’s remarkable skill at amalgamating a variety of styles, both vocal and musical. Though the album overall could best be considered experimental pop, genres as diverse as soul, electro, blues, dance, industrial-lite, jazz and alt-rock are all ingredients in the stew. Kimbra is clearly fascinated with sound, crafting a hodgepodge of notes that collide to make an aural collage, with the only constant uniting the songs being their shared unconventionality. Furthermore, most of the 12 songs (13, if you count bonus track “Warrior”), feature multiple melodies, harmonizing in singularity or running parallel to one another, occasionally intersecting then veering off. For those who suffer from (or revel in) synesthesia, the album’s flurry of melodies comes as a barrage of colors, occupying at once your ears and eyes.
The centerpiece of the record, though, is Kimbra’s voice, a supple instrument in its own right, capable of changing her songs’ narrators from coy ingénue to seductive vamp, from childish to commanding. The musical palettes often serve as playgrounds for her vocal acrobatics, her own looped voice serving as a percussion and rhythm instrument, with just such a device opening first track and lead single “Settle Down”. Husky whisper, low moan, empathetic croon and high-end belting are all arrows in her quiver. Though it’s an understatement to say her range is impressive, her screeching gets grating at times, with some of those high notes she hits making you wince a bit. On the dreamy and endearing “Something in the Way You Are”, her mewling can be hard to stomach, but thankfully there is enough going on in the song to compensate.
There is such a degree of theatricality throughout the record that the instruments serve as stage props. The influence of Jeff Buckley and Björk are obvious, both in those singers’ fluid, jazzy approach to song structure and orchestral arrangement of instruments. The link to Buckley is most evident in Kimbra’s scatting and high-register vibrato, while she is at her most Björkesque on the aforementioned “Something in the Way You Are”. As entities unto themselves, the songs are largely playful and impish, sugar-coated in their catchiness and hooks, though Kimbra tends to infuse them with deeper lyrical concerns than the average pop numbers. Take “Settle Down” for example, in which the surface value of the lyrics belies quite a dark bent. The narrator repeats as a mantra her desire to settle down, buy the requisite furniture, sire a child and grow old. Pretty yawn-inducing stuff, if it’s evaluated literally. A deeper listen shows the song is a commentary on the social conventions of feminine roles, casting a critical eye on the hand-me-down notion that women are indoctrinated with the rush to marry while still in the prime of their youths, to start procreating for God knows why and forsake freedom for domesticity. The repetition of stated desires comes across as the narrator’s attempt to convince herself her ambitions are genuine. The most interesting moment comes in the chorus, in which Kimbra stargazes for the unattainable ideal as the music shimmers around her — “Star so light and star so bright / First star I see tonight / Star so light and star so bright / Keep him by my side”.
“Cameo Lover”, with its surging synth wall, similarly features upbeat tempos despite amounting to plea to a loved one to stop wallowing in the darkness and give the light a try, while the pulsating ballad “Old Flame” features a brooding nostalgia for a love gone by. The narrator has a masochistic tendency, compelling her to trudge through reminders of the past rather than moving on — “I went by your house today / When did you get so hollow? / So closed, so overgrown / But I flicker and sway”, Kimbra sings, a drum machine blasting spastically, simulating the torment that arises at random. Conveying a similar sentiment of clinging to the past is “Plain Gold Ring”, a blues number in the PJ Harvey tradition. Descending guitar and piano chords and a backdrop of Kimbra’s chanting voice serve to support the singer’s account of obsession for a man who pledged himself to another — “Plain gold ring has but one thing to say / I’ll remember till my dying days / In my heart it will never be spring / Long as he wears that plain gold ring”. The song ends by erupting into a free-form jam, a catharsis helmed by Kimbra’s caterwauling.
On the other side of the emotional spectrum is the funk swagger of “Come Into My Head”. Kimbra is at her sauciest here, playing up the role of demanding predator.Then there is the defiant and menacing “Posse” and the robotic creepiness of “Good Intent”, the maraca shuffle and moody marimba allowing Kimbra to showcase an array of vocal turns in sultrily recounting a tale of a slipping husband. The red light glow fizzles out as a noir, Marc Ribot-styled guitar solo wraps the song.
Despite the general buoyancy of the music pervading the album, it ends on a dour note with the rainy day maudlin “The Build Up”. With irregular, plinking percussion and understated cooing as accompaniment, Kimbra recalls some of the disappointments inherent to life. “I only went down for the company”, Kimbra sings, the single line being the album’s most heartrending moment, especially when you consider the various connotations. It’s a lonely tune, the sparsest of the record, with a sustained trumpet evoking the regret of the previous night. It’s a curious choice to end the record in such fashion, yet it is a song that could only work as a closer. Those needing something more affirming have bonus track “Warrior” to fall back on, but that song, with its ’80s throwback synth pop sound, deserves its status as being but an extra.
All said, Vows is a striking, though not impeccable, debut record. The kinks can surely be overcome on successive releases, which this album serves to whet listeners’ appetites for. To reiterate, though, it’s baffling to consider how it took a chance Top 40 hit Kimbra cameoed in to warrant her own album’s appearance in the U.S. Perhaps it’s indicative of the industry today, that a label is lax to take a risk on an artist until she has proven herself a viable commodity.