About 12 years ago, the hypnotic percussion introduction to “Poor Little Rich Boy” announced the arrival of a unique new voice to the masses. On Regina Spektor’s major label debut, Soviet Kitsch, her atypical song patterns and moving lyrics eschewed conventions of indie pop. Over time, Spektor’s unique sound became more poppy, more accessible — or maybe the rest of the world got a little weirder to match her. Spektor has taken some time off from releasing music since 2012, spending her time on a follow-up that, thankfully, recalls her earliest work. Full of lyrics that effortlessly travel to the deepest parts of the heart, Remember Us to Life delivers stunning songs with intriguing unconventionality and pop appeal.
Mercurial ballad “Bleeding Heart” opens the album, discussing heartbreak with melodies that swiftly careen from melancholy to whimsy. “But when they walk away/ You wished they’d stay,” she sings. The feelings are familiar. “Never, never mind your bleeding heart,” she repeatedly implores in a rich falsetto, synths and cellos dotting the backdrop. Spektor depicts pain honestly: messy, unpredictable, circuitous. Tactics to overcome the hurt include a favorite song, tears, and time. “Someday you’ll grow up and then you’ll forget all of the pain you’ve endured/ Until you walk by a sad pair of eyes and up will come back all the hurt.”
(Interview: How To Make a Heart Explode: A Conversation with Regina Spektor)
Some of Spektor’s best music ran on wonder, storytelling, and a childlike optimism, and “Older and Taller” recalls this familiar formula. We grow older, but do we ever know it all? “Enjoy your youth/ Sounds like a threat/ But I will anyway,” Spektor presses, as ominous strings and piano slow the ballad down for a necessary pause. But not all of the songs get the same high-caliber drama. From the title onward, “Small Bill$” feels a bit cheesy, but Spektor’s interesting vocals keep the song afloat even with the M.I.A.-esque interludes. “Black and White” is flooded with sweetness, yet it’s almost so sugary that it obscures the subject matter.
Spektor emerges at her most bare during “The Light”. At first with just her voice and piano, she sings of the simple things in life. As the instrumentation grows in volume, the once simple subject matter becomes more vulnerable. The candor with which she reveals this inner self is stunning: “I know the morning is wiser than the nighttime/ I know there’s nothing wrong, that I shouldn’t feel so down/ So many things I know but they don’t help me/ Each day I open up my eyes to look around.”
Elsewhere, “The Trapper and the Furrier” brings more jarring, haunting sentiments. Imaginative, industrial stories serve as an allegory for the crooked problems of modern society. “What a strange, strange world we live in/ Those who don’t have lose/ Those that got get given more, more, more” she cries out, as cellos and piano keys increase in intensity, reaching a chaotic climax. Spektor discusses muddling through life’s toughest lessons as well as dealing with demons such as depression and anxiety throughout “Tornadoland”, asserting that the struggle is worthwhile in the end. Fittingly, melodies whir about hazily until her voice returns, gentle and unabashed. The monsters in our minds want to be nice, she contends, as long as we can let them.
Spektor’s songs are most powerful when they place hard-fought wisdom at their core, the lyrics so meaningful they almost hurt. On the stunning “Obsolete”, she sings out one of the most direct and powerful lines of the album: “What am I/ Why am I incomplete?” Choral vocals and lush strings carry her forward as the lilting piano chords ebb and flow, the simplicity of the line only escalating its strength. The haunting track insists that pondering one’s own existence is not only a benefit, it’s a necessity.
The album fades out with more sweetness. “Sellers of Flowers” emerges imagery-laden, rose petals plucked like heads of lettuce along with childlike memories of walking through a market in wintertime. “The Visit” discusses the constancy of change and the impermanence of life, Spektor’s voice shining in the light.
There’s a lot to be said about augmenting one’s sound. It grows a singer’s artistry and opens them up to new audiences. However, there’s also something to be said about returning to roots. With Remember Us to Life, Spektor foregoes some of the whimsical narratives on previous albums and digs back into more personal thoughts, showcasing her inimitable vocals and piano talents. The record reminds to feel, to grieve, to press on, that change is a good thing, and that feelings serve to remind us that we’re truly alive.
Essential Tracks: “The Light”, “Obsolete”, and “Bleeding Heart”