The differences between We Slept at Last, Marika Hackman’s 2015 full-length debut, and her latest offering, the terrific Any Human Friend, aren’t infinite, but they’re certainly noteworthy, and shed light on the artistic transformation of the 27-year-old British singer-songwriter. The differences are mainly two-fold. The music is more in line with traditional alt-rock and retro new wave, with only a husk of her folk influences remaining. And lyrically, Hackman has torn down any remaining walls that prevent her from singing with complete and occasionally shocking honesty.
For both Hackman and her listeners, this transformation is a win-win. She bares her soul in a truly liberating fashion, and the listeners are treated to both lyrical catharsis and the aural satisfaction of a full band’s thump. While the album’s title is lifted from a documentary about four-year-olds interacting with dementia patients, the phrase “any human friend” is used in a broader sense, as in the act of accepting people from all disciplines for who they are.
Any Human Friend is honest not just in its emotional content. The open sexuality is presented directly and often. “All you fuckers want my dick,” she sings over the dancefloor buzz of “The One” with the unvarnished honesty of a millennial Liz Phair. Hackman frequently turns the tables on the heteronormative nature of traditional pop songwriting with straightforward odes to lesbian sexuality in songs like “All Night” (“We go down on one another / You’re my favorite kind of lover”) and “Come Undone” (“I think that I love her / But I’m fucking another / It’s enough to make a girl go to ground”). Her ode to masturbation, the appropriately titled “Hand Solo”, also takes a swipe at the rock and roll boys’ club: “Under patriarchal law,” she sings, “I’m going to die a virgin” (a line that’s already getting plenty of well-deserved pull quotes in the press).
From a musical standpoint, Any Human Friend is a quantum leap forward for Hackman, as the more fully-formed, full-band arrangements add a welcome element to her sharp lyrical content. The music is biting and arresting yet never manages to distract from what she’s singing about. Rather, it creates new and exciting dimensions to what would have probably been great songs even with simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. Guitar and synths mesh to create an addictive blend of indie rock, with surprising – and welcome – musical sequences, like the razor-sharp guitar solo of “I’m Not Where You Are” and the deliberately placed instrumental codas at the end of both “Hand Solo” and the raw, emotional break-up ballad “Send My Love”. The thorny interplay between bass, guitar, and keyboards in these sections almost suggests a sober ode to progressive rock (at the very least, Radiohead’s modern approach to the genre).
A song like “Conventional Ride” almost seems to fly in the face of what could have been a naked, heart-on-sleeve indie-folk effort. The song’s arrangement sways between danceable motorik beats in the verses to driving, deeply melodic choruses. When the album slows down with the lush “Hold On”, Hackman isn’t content to deliver a predictable ballad. The dream-like synth strings and ethereal harmonies are joined by thick artificial beats that almost suggest Homogenic-era Björk.
Any Human Friend closes with the disarming title track -chiming guitars interweave with chunky bass lines as Hackman longs for connection in an increasingly heartless world. “Meet me on the outside / ‘Cause I don’t belong / Everybody’s looking at me / Like I’m made of stone.” Marika Hackman is an artist unabashedly dedicated to laying her emotions out for the world to see. Whether the subject is sex, love, equality or heartbreak, Any Human Friend offers up the perfect combination – lyrics to make you think and music to make you move.