It is exciting to see what Regina Spektor can do when she conceives of an album as a holistic unit, rather than a collection of idiosyncratic parts.
Regina Spektor has her paradoxes. Besides singing the Orange Is the New Black theme song, she is known for her sweet love songs and her "quirky" mannerisms; yet here is a woman who is also not afraid to shout, "Mary Anne's a bitch!" repeatedly in a chorus. After taking a sharp turn away from her lo-fi, irreverent beginnings with 2006's light and flowery Begin to Hope, she did an interview with the A.V. Club declaring that she will always "do whatever the hell [she] want[s]", painting her turn towards cushy pop almost as a form of defiance. While the niche-to-mainstream narrative can be unflattering on paper, Spektor has in fact produced much of her best work during her pop years, with Begin to Hope and its follow-up Far ranking easily among her best work. Nonetheless, this same approach has also led to some truly groan-worthy moments, as when she reworked her lovely, spare, Parisian gem "Ne Me Quitte Pas" into a bloated pop disaster on 2012's mediocre What We Saw from the Cheap Seats. It is into this complicated history with pop that her first album in four years, Remember Us to Life, enters.
"Bleeding Heart" finds Spektor again packaging sober sentiments in saccharine wrapping. When it arrived ahead of Remember Us to Life, this seemed at first to portend a continuing decline in the depth and nuance of her songwriting, or at least in her use of production. The song tells the story of a youth spent in protracted isolation, "Drinking all night long / Staring at the walls of your jail-like home". Spektor recounts the somber imagery amid cheerful, gently percolating keyboards and a fluttering falsetto that absently whisks away the pain: "never mind your bleeding heart". The overall effect of the song is equivalent to an encouraging note from your elementary school teacher: it may cheer you, and it may be exactly what you need after a long, tough day, but there is also an inescapable sense that something is being left unsaid, that the specifics and the unseemly details have been swept under the rug in the interest of preserving a G-rated atmosphere.
As the album's first track and lead single, fortunately, "Bleeding Heart" turns out to be something of a red herring. The rest of Remember Us to Life shows far more restraint and allows itself to truly sit with dark emotions, largely sidestepping the feel-good, Pinterest-ready aesthetic that has sometimes marred her output (yes, even before Pinterest existed at all). Remember Us to Life is possibly Spektor's saddest and most reflective album to date; the themes of youth, remembrance, and the not-always-helpful advice of the old to the young resonate poignantly throughout.
After the initial dud of an opener, Spektor hits her stride with standout track "Older and Taller", which features a swelling, majestic arrangement and a melody that feels mature, nostalgic, and wizened. "'Enjoy your youth' sounds like a threat," she keenly observes, before adding, "but I will anyway". Regina Spektor has always used her songs as vehicles for storytelling, and here she complements that approach by emphasizing compositional movement over melodic simplicity and catchiness. She lets her piano do a lot of the talking, in harmony with her own gorgeous voice.
The whole album in fact is more lush and orchestral than any of Spektor's previous efforts. Percussion is often spare, except on tracks like the crazed "Small Bill$", and it all but disappears entirely during the album's lugubrious second half. This allows her classical training to shine through more apparently than ever, the intricacy of her compositions recalling fellow piano-whisperer Tori Amos, an artist to whom Spektor's work and popular appeal remain indebted.
Though she is no longer banging on chairs to create a beat, Regina Spektor's music is still like a one-woman show where she plays all the parts. On Remember Us to Life she is one moment wise and experienced, the next spunky and naïve, all the time reflecting on the larger, shared experience of aging. On "The Light", another highlight, Spektor sings like a woman who has had all too much time to contemplate the recurrent storms of life. She considers how age has brought her wisdom, but wisdom has not brought her happiness, admitting, "So many things I know, but they don't help me." She further develops the theme of aging on "Obsolete", playing a character who has been forgotten and left behind by the world of youth. "I can't compete," she confesses, gorgeously awash in melancholic orchestral waves. Spektor's success on these songs is not surprising, as she has always known her way around a good sad song, all the way back to the stunning "Braille" from her very first release, 2001's 11:11.
Not all of the album cuts as deep as intended, however. "Black and White", another single, is a bland ballad too light to support any of its attempted emotional weight. Here, Spektor repeatedly poses the question, "Why should I wait for tomorrow?", her voice pushing itself gently higher with each refrain. Like "Bleeding Heart", this is a potent sentiment imprisoned within a brittle production that does it no justice. There are moments where the sadness nearly feels tangible, where Spektor's voice sounds lovely and heartbreaking, but she does not develop these moments enough. The details of the song's sad, sad tale are flattened and washed out, like a photograph that has been bleached by sunlight.
For the most part, though, this is one of Regina Spektor's most holistic and potent albums. It is not as warm or lovable as Begin to Hope or Far, but it substitutes the charm and the romance of those two records with a maturity and sobriety that befits Spektor. In the past, her songs have often dealt with personal, peculiar tragedies: tales of sick women who would prefer a ride in a limousine to chemotherapy; men who tear out pages from their favorite books and then stare longingly at the moon; lovers cheated from a mention in the Bible. Here, she reaches a little higher and attempts something a little more universal. "Who's the winner? Maybe winter," she questions on "Sellers of Flowers", a stark moment of reckoning with life's most daunting truth of all: mortality. Spektor approaches these moments with a light touch -- yes, sometimes too light for her purposes -- but she remains forever compassionate towards her subject matter. It is exciting to see what Regina Spektor can do when she conceives of an album as a holistic unit, rather than a collection of idiosyncratic parts. This quality makes Remember Us to Life one of her most careful, considered, elegant statements to date.