You can finish school in less than 12 years or raise a child and send them to school. It took Richard Linklater 12 years to film his groundbreaking project, Boyhood. During the same period, PJ Harvey released five of her ten albums, from Dry to Stories from the City and Stories from the Sea, and became a legendary artist. Twelve is precisely the number of winters, as the characters of George R. R. Martin’s novels call it, that it took Leo Tolstoy to write his masterpiece War and Peace. Sharon Van Etten went through 12 years and almost came full circle in her career, from her debut album to the magnum opus Remind Me Tomorrow. The author of this review has been a music writer for the same amount of time. Finally, even the Napoleonic Wars spanned a similar duration, lasting from 1803 to 1815.
My point is: Mackenzie Scott, also known as Torres (but not that football manager from Google search results), says, “I still have a lot to say. I don’t even think I’ve made my best work yet”, but how do we know that it’s already enough for her to be called, say, the next PJ Harvey or just an iconic singer-songwriter? Who will tell us how to categorize her music within the cultural timeline of our era? I hear the voice from the audience or from an imaginary comments section: “Let’s see how many and what kind of scores all of her six albums have right now, and also what music critics write there.” Nope, it doesn’t work. After reading almost all reviews written to date about her records, I didn’t find any expressions like: “This is it, folks, now Torres is a huge deal”, or: “That’s all, she is now the new Cate Le Bon or St. Vincent”. So, how do we determine this? Who gets to bestow the “Iconic” medal upon her?
The keyword is longevity and the progression of an oeuvre. Of course, all those factors, like critical acclaim, a devoted fanbase, and the number of streams, are important. But the slow quality growth over time, with new sonic heights and inevitable flat and dull filler moments, matters most. Every great musician has their Self Portrait or Never Let Me Down, but from a far distance, it all, in general, will be seen as a decent catalog.
Torres has been in the game for almost 12 years and still hasn’t released anything of that sort, though. This is not a short or exceptionally long period, but it’s enough to develop a pretty impressive body of work, which she now has. Starting with a bold and raw guitar debut with a bit of a touch of Sharon Van Etten, in the sophomore offering, Sprinter, she ventured into razor-sharp and raw grunge with an overall atmosphere that owes a debt to Muse and an Alison Mosshart/Sky Ferreira/early PJ Harvey Tumblr aesthetic. On her third record, Three Futures, she irrevocably crossed the line.
From that time, Torres’ music shifted to a slower and more delicate pace. Sound and fury gave way to electronic experiments and introspective ballads. The indie rock spirit of the 2010s transitioned to darker gothic aesthetics with folk roots and theatrical delivery. Three Futures is her pinnacle so far, but her subsequent works have revealed her as an ever-changing and versatile singer-songwriter with a wide range of sonics. Against such a vivid backdrop, her sixth album might seem like a step back or a tale of lost time, as they say, especially following the loud and punchy Thirstier. Despite its reserved, dry, soft, and tranquil harmonies, What an Enormous Room sounds even more poppy and self-confident than its predecessors, with its multilayered, luscious-yet-intimate arrangements and a lot of ringing void. If Brian Eno‘s Ambient 1 was music for airports, Torres’ offering is a soundtrack for enormous empty rooms.
David Byrne, the maestro of extracting any sound from anything and almost everywhere, would appreciate such a concept of music’s emergence in absolutely abandoned (or still uninhabited) spaces. It’s noteworthy that Torres winks at him and Eno in two of her nearly most electronic songs (after “To Be Given a Body”, as fans might point out): “Jerk into Joy” resonates almost like a deep house cut by way of a slightly slowed-down Romy, with a spoken-word part which calls to mind Talking Heads’ chants (“You may ask yourself, ‘What is that beautiful house?'”, Byrne echoes her); and “Songbird Forever” is an utterly ambient-ish, birdsong-laden coda into which the entire album dissolves at the end, making one little “jerk into joy” at the threshold of a new life. Then there’s “Forever Home”, a lightweight art pop with almost St. Vincent-esque vocals. This triptych of tranquility, closing the album on a positive note, is preceded by very buoyant first half of the record, which does “hit a nerve”.
The wildest song of the entire ten-track span, a tour de force “Collect”, seems to have accidentally got lost and stuck between two slow-burning cuts: the “Ugly Mystery” lullaby, reminiscent of Marika Hackman‘s “The Ground“-like otherworldly daydreams; and the psychedelic “Artificial Limits” with Ray Manzarek-indebted organ and Teardrop-era Massive Attack beats in the background. Apropos, the aforementioned Hackman is another enormous talent that must be considered iconic. Alright, back to our analysis.
Another two standout blasts from What an Enormous Room are: “I Got the Fear”, notable for its aesthetic shared with Radiohead, and the funky opener “Happy Man’s Shoes” with “Riders on the Storm”-tinged organ plucks and buzzing guitar strums. Overall, this 35-minute collection is full of subtle references and echoes of the prominent music we know and love, and Torres uses all this heritage not like an aspiring indie talent but like one of them, like a true MVP, as they say.
“If you’re here, it means you’ve survived,” she sings on “Artificial Limits”. Indeed! Returning to our discussion of her position on a PJ Harvey scale, we can assert that over these 12 years, Torres has made it to the level where legends are born, somewhere akin to her own White Chalk phase. It’s strange that considering all that complimentary press, critics still don’t seem to realize that we already have not just an excellent indie musician but a big artist of, as Noel Gallagher might put it, a “biblical” level.
However, who needs all those scores. Torres evaluates herself perfectly. “Babe, my star’s just on the rise,” she sings in “Happy Man’s Shoes”, and adds in “Artificial Limits”: “And in spite of everything/Anything could happen now”. Despite all the fear, anger, “loneliness, deaths of pets”, and “panicking in the public bathroom stall” that have permeated her music and this album, it’s reassuring to see how she gains confidence and calm, moving from the first song to the last.
“Think I’ll be alright,” Torres concludes in “I Got the Fear”, while “squinting up out the window” at the sudden sunlight after a period of darkness and gloom.