Reviews

Kristeen Young Is Back With a Vengeance on 'The SubSet'

Photo: Brian McClelland

Avant-rock singer-songwriter, Kristeen Young's The SubSet is a chilling, self-produced masterwork featuring her brash showmanship, complex songwriting, and wide-ranging musical skill.

The SubSet
Kristeen Young

Self-released

4 September 2019

For all of her brash showmanship, complex songwriting, and wide-ranging musical skill, it's shocking that Kristeen Young isn't a more familiar name among adventurous music listeners. She certainly has her share of famous fans. Legendary producer Tony Visconti has worked on a majority of her previous solo albums, one of which – Breasticles, from 2003 – featured a duet with David Bowie. Dave Grohl played drums and guitar on her 2014 album The Knife Shift. She sang on a 2008 Morrissey single, "That's How People Grow Up". And speaking of Moz, the famously irritable singer hired Young as an opening act for his 2014 tour, only to cancel several of the tour's dates after he claimed that Young passed a bad cold on to him and his bandmates (which Young vehemently denied, resulting in a bitter fallout between the two).

For her first studio album in five years The SubSet, Young is simplifying things, self-producing the album and playing nearly all the instruments herself (except for the drums, played by Jefferson "Baby Jef" White). The result is a brief yet thrilling release that combines complex, full-fledged compositions with brief, cinematic interludes. It's also a deeply personal work with lyrics that feature a brutal level of honesty. The opening track, "Less Than", is a stew of industrial synths, banging pianos, primal beats and Young's stunning vocals delivering both accusatory snarls and operatic soars. The lyrics dissect the increasingly topical subject of classicism, and make it frighteningly direct: "You want me on the bottom rung," she sings. "All my powers gone / Not Kristeen L. Young."

Young slows things down with "St. Even", but the song still contains a dense, knotty arrangement over the lumbering waltz tempo. Young's voice, which seems to recall Kate Bush by way of Diamanda Galas, gives the song the vibe of a cracked love ballad, even though the lyrics needle-drop their way through hints of child abuse and decimated friendships. That makes what could be construed as allusions to Morrissey all the more confusing. Towards the song's conclusion, she repeats "Steven I'm getting even / As time moves on" over and over, as if the whole thing is a cathartic, life-encompassing plea for closure.

In what's perhaps the most emotionally raw moment on The SubSet, "Marine Dadd" is a chilling, dissonant oral history of both Young's adopted and birth fathers, with vivid descriptions of adultery, abuse, Nazi sympathy, and death. "Think of your dad in the ground / He is there / He is decomposing." Balancing out that heaviness is more traditional stuff, relatively speaking. "In 3rd Grade We Learn Division" is a swift blast of danceable rock propelled by Young's staccato piano stabs, before ending with an utterly unpredictable and gradually intensifying instrumental coda.

Elsewhere, the eclectic "Everyday Subtraction" veers between twitchy, stuttering beats and quieter, multilayered interludes, and the theatrical "The Bold One" almost seems lifted from a modern opera, as Young's vocals reach astronomical heights alongside a dark, relentless guitar figure. In another indirect nod to pop concessions, "Pretty Twogether" seems to follow a somewhat traditional path with verses, choruses, and hooks. But the way the different musical parts intersect results in an admittedly odd yet magnetic composition and performance. For an album that was executed and multi-tracked almost entirely by one person, the multiple layers make for a remarkably cohesive sound.

The short interlude-length tracks range from the brief, atmospheric effects of "Sweet X" to the jittery "Distraction Breakdown" and finally closing with the spoken word "Differentials" in which Young says, "We are different in ways that are so beyond race or gender / and always lonely / and we know that no change will ever come our way." Kristeen Young is a tremendously talented artist whose music is a generous gift, and even when she confesses to seeing the world as lonely and unchanging, it remains a seductive pull.

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