Every Penelope Trappes album features a blurry, washed-out photo of her posing nude on the front. But don’t be misled: the purpose of these album covers is not to be sexy. Instead, these images of Trappes convey something bleak, elemental, and almost foreboding. On Penelope Two, she appears doubled over in the middle of a wasteland, hair in her face, hands in the sand, as if she is about to vomit. Or is the image meant to signify something else? Is it supposed to convey withdrawnness, a reluctance to show her face? Is she bent over because she is preoccupied, searching for something in the sand?
We could spend all day trying to uncover the meaning of Penelope Trappes’ portraits, but we’d probably be reading into things. In the end, her purpose might be all three of those things: she’s meant to look preoccupied, in pain, and camera-shy all at once. It’s an apt metaphor for Trappes’ music, which is characterized by gothic textures, bare-bones electronics, and reticent vocals that often seem too pained to sing over the mix.
On Penelope Three, the latest installment in a trilogy of LPs that includes Penelope One and Penelope Two, the album art is a little less bleak. So is the music. There’s more color and life to Trappes’ portrait, as she lifts her face heavenward, her eyes closed in a meditative posture. And without generalizing too much, it’s fair to say that the music here is a little more uplifting. As Trappes says of the album: “The universal message is that of overcoming our fears to allow the love in.”
Penelope Three is an LP of cathartic release, purging the darkness of the first two LPs. That’s not to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows, but it certainly has a daydreamy, seaside feel. It’s not the eye of the hurricane; it’s the calm after a storm at sea. The first track, “Veil”, kicks off with a recording of seagulls and oceanic ambience. The rest of the album follows in stride, with reverb-soaked guitars, slow-motion percussion, and Trappes’ richly operatic vocals.
Indeed, if anything is separating Penelope Three from its predecessors, it’s the prominence of the vocals here. Trappes has sung before, but her vocals always seemed reserved, cooing and fluttering beneath layers of dark ambience and icy shoegaze in her past work. On tracks like “Nervous”, the sound artist sets her voice free, singing clearly and articulately over glossy electronics and a downtempo groove. “Red Yellow” finds Trappes at her sexiest, asking the listener to “slip inside my house” in a sultry, bewitching soprano that calls to mind Beth Gibbons of Portishead.
The weakest links on Penelope Three are generally the moments when all the elements blur together, such as “Fur & Feather” and “Halfway Point”. Here, the instrumentals and vocals fail to distinguish themselves from each other in a meaningful way. The guitar on “Halfway Point” adds a lively touch, but it dissolves too easily into the surrounding atmospherics. Making this kind of music is always a balancing act. As much as you want to immerse the listener in a sheen of breezy, ambient dream pop, you still have to hold their attention. There are certainly times where Penelope Three fails to strike this balance and trades substance for atmosphere.
Thankfully, the LP saves the best for last. “Northern Light” is the most ominous moment of all, with its wordless singing, frantic violins, and pulverizing, tectonic drums. The closer, “Awkward Matriarch”, is an emotionally charged meditation on motherhood led by pleading vocals and triumphant symphonics. “Unchain liberty/keening like a banshee/awkward matriarch, awkward matriarch,” Trappes sings. It’s a fitting closeout to a trilogy that began shortly after the birth of her first daughter.
Penelope Three is not a pop record, but it is Trappes’ boldest, most straightforward work to date. Even if the end result may not be as consistent as past records, it’s refreshing to hear her set her voice free and break out of her dream-pop reveries. On Penelope One and Two, most of the elements felt strategically withheld, but on Three, Penelope Trappes holds nothing back.