How do you tackle the challenge of balancing youthful exuberance with the responsibilities of adulthood? Through the use of metaphor, of course! Irish singer-songwriter Janet Devlin, still under the age of 21, gleefully confronts the outer reaches of self-identity and self-determination on Running with Scissors. She does it through such a wide-eyed panoramic lens that you can almost see the layers of naïveté being peeled away as her angular but polished tones glide across her 10-song sequence of lovelorn and fun loving folk pop.
With a title like Running with Scissors, you’d expect the album to have a youthful vibe to it, somewhat rebellious but with a playful bent. Certainly, Running with Scissors leans heaviest on childhood tropes: the reliance on the age-old fear of the dark in “Creatures of the Night”; the references to card games in “House of Cards”; “Hide & Seek” and its denotations; the twinkling sound of a music box and the hushed singing in “Whisky Lullabies”.
True, Ms. Devlin is drawing analogies between love and our favorite games in songs like “House of Cards” and “Hide & Seek”, but the source of the emotion still feels like it’s on the surface. Therefore, we can’t help but believe our fearless protagonist has yet to endure her most impactful experiences. Nevertheless, there’s quite a bit to enjoy here, as the music and delivery fondly recall a few of Devlin’s inspirations in Imogen Heap, Regina Spektor and Avril Lavigne. I’d also toss in Pink’s I’m Not Dead (see “Delicate”), at least in terms of song structure and relatively lukewarm introspection, particularly in the faster tempo numbers.
But it’s in the slower songs that Janet Devlin truly excels. In “Lifeboat”, she floats away from games and other child-related touchstones, and ventures into more mature metaphorical ground. No, it doesn’t all reach shore, but her voice lands big as the true showcase. In “Things We Lost in the Fire” and “When You Were Mine”, her voice is revelatory, elevating these songs to top flight material. Really, there are few things better than an artist absolutely nailing a vocal performance over a gentle, ambling piano, and Ms. Devlin is devastating in “Things We Lost in the Fire”. She’s so much more suited to this than, say, her cover of the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love”.
Moreover, her “fire” metaphor is delightfully at odds with the traditional “fire” symbolism. Where “fire” and “flames” might connote passion, desire, or even faithful struggle, the singer hones in on fire’s ability to hurt, destroy, and decimate. Yet, her reflective singing grounds the song in regret rather than bitterness or anger, and the result is triumphant.
The slow tracks are the lightning rods while the up-tempo tracks tend to be less impressive and less fresh, even though they are mostly well-executed and overall fun to listen to. It’s a conflicting dilemma, for sure, because the album carries a subtle theme of “light versus dark” which, understandably, extends into “joy versus sadness” and “hope versus despair”. The faster pop songs bring the joy and hope, sometimes with a twinge of sadness, while the ballads illuminate feelings of melancholy, albeit with a hopeful center.
What Running with Scissors really shows us, though, is that Janet Devlin has grown a lot since her 2011 appearance on Series 8 of The X-Factor. As she continues to navigate the lush instrumentation of strumming guitars and dramatic strings that adorn Running with Scissors, her voice and musical ambition can only be the better for it. And that will be a wonderful treat.