The opening of a Torres song often sounds like a distant thunderstorm in the making, gathering sonic particles into a taut force field and suddenly unleashing the whole mass in shocking, explosive bolts. Tunnels of reverb, claustrophobic ostinatos, and Mackenzie Scott’s menacing alto swirl together as pressure builds and emotions like fear, confusion, despair, and tentative flashes of hope incubate inside these charged sonic environments. The foreboding weather systems that Scott summons in her songs give dimension and extension to the topics she explores: her Baptist upbringing, her ongoing spiritual negotiation with those roots, her adoption, the weight of white guilt, the bullshittiness of social decorum — and the list goes on.
It might sound like an undersell to invoke the category of the singer-songwriter in relation to Scott, but, quite simply, that’s what she is, and it’s worth thinking about what she’s adding to that somewhat amorphous and lately wearisome field. Like the great poets before her (Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos), the lyrics speak for themselves. See, for example, the eerie “Oh January keep a secret for me / Only Poseidon knows what I’ve seen”; the appropriately discomfiting “Son you are no ocean / No sunken gold pervades your salty bowels”; or the precisely ironic “Pastor lost his position / Went down for pornography.” Scott can be cheeky, weary, deep, and scathing, often in the space of a single composition. Her songs would be compelling were she simply playing in a coffee shop with an acoustic guitar. Like fellow auteurs Laura Marling and Angel Olsen, however, she understands what can be gained from plugging in and hooking up with an exceptionally astute producer who enhances the writer’s singular voice without overshadowing it — in Scott’s case, Rob Ellis of PJ Harvey fame.
Voice, both the sound that emanates from vocal cords and the perspective from which songs are written, is what’s been honed on Torres’s second album Sprinter. It’s also what distinguishes Scott from other poetically inclined, guitar-slinging songwriters. To get a sense of what’s happening in Scott’s windpipes here, throw on “Strange Hellos” and move the dial to about 2:45; you’ll hear stretched-out notes, contorted vowels, and, at the climax, a near-metal scream, conveying levels of emotional fury to match lyrics like “I still hate you all the same” and “strange hellos are not my bag”. Rewind to the beginning of the song and you’ll hear a wavering near-whisper that could belong to another singer altogether.
Setting up shop in the lowest region of her vocal range is Scott’s chief innovation on Sprinter, for this dimension of her voice shades in dark affective tones while optimizing a spectrum of notes that very few female singers have access to. She’s thus occupying a space that many of her peers are incapable of even approaching. On “Son, You Are No Island”, Scott adopts the voice of God in addressing a hubristic young man; echoing harmonic layers lend a low sonic boom to the main vocal that seems appropriate given its putatively divine source. Ellis’s production creates little tornados of reverb and percussion to surround Scott’s voice; the song gains sinister power from its slow, anxious simmer and its carefully chosen mini-explosions.
If Scott can be godly and furious on “Son” and “Strange Hellos”, she can also be vulnerable, exploring familiar love-related conundrums in novel ways. “Ferris Wheel” is about mourning a relationship that she never really had. We’ve all been taken advantage of by crushes, most likely — “You borrowed my car a couple times / You don’t like me you just like my ride” — though few of us would think to compare that kind of frustrated desire to riding “an empty ferris wheel”, and even fewer of us would have a producer like Ellis creating windy squalls of guitar noise to approximate the desolate sound of an abandoned amusement park at night. In this sense, Sprinter’s instrumentation often gets mimetic; on “A Proper Polish Welcome”, which turns on images of sirens and sea gods, we hear actual waves breaking in the background, and on “Sprinter”, guitar effects rush through headphones like wind rushes through a runner’s ears.
Album closer “The Exchange” uses sound effects in a different yet equally powerful way. Gone is the precision that can be achieved in the bosom of a studio; rather, we hear birds chirping and guitar strings scratching as though the track were recorded in a country kitchen. The song is heart-breakingly intimate, describing Scott’s adoption right down to the legal paperwork: “The exchange was quick and quiet / The record sealed the names made private / Her search began and ended with a judge.” From this detailed wisp of a narrative we get frank confessionalism: “I will no longer claim to know where we go when it’s time to go / But when you go will I go, too.” It’s a delicate, tentatively enunciated cry meant for someone who’s tragically absent; it’s a quiet scream that its addressee might never hear. Later Scott declares, “There’s so much more I want to sing,” and against her wavering tremolo you can hear the strain of thoughts yet to be articulated. It makes you hold your breath for whatever Torres will create next.