Johanna Warren‘s new album, Lessons for Mutants, is a hard one to review. That’s meant as a compliment. In our age of judgment, comment, valuation, voting, ratings, data, labels, camps, criticism, algorithm, comparison, and categorization (and the staunch resistance to it, which is also a kind of categorization, Lessons for Mutants defies all of it. It is itself a mutant, or in any case, mutable. The more you play it, the less it consents to take shape.
For one thing, it feels almost unfinished. That is also a compliment. Ours is also the age of hollow little things and notions inflated into bloated, boastful, and factitious forms. Not so much molehills made into mountains as molehills made into giant impenetrable molehills, empty but unassailable and ugly. Lessons for Mutants runs barely over 30 minutes. Some of its ten tracks feel more like musical gestures than like complete compositions; for the most part, they don’t sound like they’re trying to be more than they are. Yet the album doesn’t feel thin or slight, but just as long as it should be, and always in the process of moving toward becoming something else—of mutating, and each of these ten songs is a lesson.
Warren’s compositions can be gauzy and lilting or stark and stilted. One song is in 7/4 time; another seems to be in 10/8. The production can sound arty or artless. Warren’s voice can be ghostly or grating, whispery or wailing. Some of her lyrics sound prosy, offhand—”I cannot guarantee that I’ll live up to my potential”—or like notes to a lover she’s trying to break up with too casually: “And I know that we’ve talked through it / But I believe that we could find / A more mutually agreeable solution.”
Mostly, though, she writes poetry, which can be lovely or rank, sometimes in the span of a single short line (“the seafoam smells like sewage”), or straight out of T.S. Eliot: “This is a path to a clearing / Fearing the wrath of God I stepped aside.” Usually, she rhymes, but not always. On the opening track, she wittily chooses orange for a rhyme and then rhymes it with orange; a few songs later, she—wittily, again—disassociates the word “dissociate” from the meter of the song in which she sings it twice.
That song, “Tooth for a Tooth”, is a relaxed, cocktail-lounge piano number you can almost hear Fiona Apple doing, or maybe Rufus Wainwright. It’s unlike anything else on Lessons for Mutants, and almost no track on Lessons for Mutants sounds like any other song. Your ears can pick up echoes of Liz Phair, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, and Tori Amos; something that sounds like whistling, something else that sounds like yodeling; emo, grunge, the 4AD Britpop sound that was ascendant in the 1980s, and the 1990s sound sometimes called “post-rock” before we understood, about a decade ago, that all music was going to be post-rock hereafter. Isn’t it odd, but perhaps also unsurprising, that in our age of over-categorization, it’s also true that genres, like genders, are losing their divisions, a countereffect that creates the age’s driving tension? In that sense, Lessons for Mutants, whose state feels unsolid and whose exact style of art is unfixed, is state of the art. It also rings with an old, uncategorizable quality that our age seems not to value very much, to our own peril: beauty.
That is not to say it is merely pretty or lacks tension, trouble, and darkness. Lessons, whether for mutants or you and me, are seldom learned without struggle. In Warren’s songs, the struggle is with how to heal pain, and Lessons for Mutants updates her progress as she moves through what seems like a protracted romantic breakup. On her previous album, 2020’s Chaotic Good, she hymned to “the sacred well of pain that [she] return[s] to time and time again”. On Lessons for Mutants, she “pray[s] to the unseen forces to wash us clean and please divorce us from our pain”.
Warren seems to know that this divorce might not be possible: “Beneath the wounds are deeper wounds,” she sings in the very same song (“Oaths”). On the next one, “County Fair”, whose narcotic, addictive gorgeousness comes mostly from Warren’s strummed guitar, she announces that she’s “ready for some new kind of healing”. But then she asks: “How many times must I learn the same lesson?”
The answer to that question is binary: you either learn it once and never have to go through it again, or you don’t learn it at all. Most of us don’t, a failure that enacts our lifelong driving tension, and no wonder: “No one’s perfect or prepared for this mortal game,” she concedes sympathetically—”Higher Self to Higher Self”—on Lessons for Mutants’ final track, “Involvulus”.
“Involvulus” (Latin for caterpillar—another mutant creature) is a very short song. It seems more like an etude, almost a repeated progression of simple but beautiful chords on the piano that underscore another mutation through “transitory times” and “temporary states”. The lyrics conclude by adopting Greek myth—Warren composed a musical adaptation of Euripides’ Bacchae last year—to force a final, permanent, deeply painful separation of lovers. “Now she’s gone for good,” Warren sings, and then “Involvulus” doesn’t so much end as simply stop. Although the piano has landed on the tonic chord, the progression seems somehow unresolved, the song’s final shape still shifting as the notes hang there, fading, decaying, and mutating all the way to Lessons for Mutants‘ last second, like a breath arrested before it’s done exhaling.
The rating below represents a concession, not an appraisal.