When Mackenzie Scott under the moniker of Torres released her self-titled debut in early 2013, it was a nice, quaint folk album that hinted at great potential but ultimately went a little underlooked in a year that had so many impressive debut albums. Fast forward to May 2015 and at only 24, those 2 years may have made a difference as Torres releases Sprinter, an album that takes some of the themes of its predecessor and embraces the darker side of human nature.
The shift in tone is apparent from the opening track ‘Strange Hellos’, which is a bit of a showstopper before the album’s even started. Whilst the debut was sparse with acoustic guitars and a generally warm tone, this feels more like the black lodge to that album’s white one, an altogether not necessarily heavier but more sinister sounding affair. ‘Heather I’m sorry that your Mother, deceased in the brain, cannot recall your name’ isn’t what you’d call a cheerful opening line for sure. What’s great though and makes itself apparent throughout the entire album is that it shows a side to Scott’s songwriting that was only hinted at previously, dealing mainly with some of the themes behind her previous religious upbringing, whether that’s the transition she’s made in New Skin or pornography within the parish in the title track Sprinter.
Some of these themes were alluded to in her self-titled debut (that album’s opening track is called Mother Earth, Father God after all) but on Sprinter there’s much more of a feeling of confrontation with that and an ever growing maturity. As a former over-analysing media student it’s even something as simple as the difference between her debut album cover (black and white, Scott’s solemn face) and this album’s cover which now features her in colour and in full frame sporting a new look and even a literal darkness designed to envelop half of herself. There’s definitely connotations to be drawn for that design choice, honest!
Her debut was great but ones of its flaws was a lack of variety and here there is both much more experimentation with the music, particularly on one of the album’s darkest tracks Son You Are No Island, with its never-changing guitar line and Twin Peaks-like atmospherics. Her vocals are much less restrained too, whether it’s a near scream full of fury at the end of Strange Hellos, or the filtering present in Son You Are No Island.
The theme of this year with a lot of the bands from 2013 releasing their 2nd albums seems to be the confidence to subvert expectations and develop and you get the feeling with Sprinter that Mackenzie Scott feels no different, playing on expectations of her folk leanings and chastising anyone who tries to pigeon hole her in that box. Whether the presence of producer and PJ Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis as well as a backing band consisting of Portishead member Adrian Utley and PJ Harvey alumni Ian Oliver has had any influence I wouldn’t want to assume, but they certainly help achieve Scott’s musical vision for this album.
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It isn’t all songs for a rainy day in Winter though. Cowboy Guilt feels like a lo-fi St.Vincent track and details Scott’s opening up after her move to Nashville from Georgia (she now resides in Brooklyn and recorded this album in Bridport/Bristol!) and the experiences that come with being an individual at University. Album closer ‘The Exchange’ is a heart-breaking 8 minute epic mainly about adoption (both herself and her Mother were adopted) but ultimately the love people have for their parents despite the highs and lows of any parent-child relationship and one that certainly resonated with me at a time of transition in my own life. (‘Mother Father, I’m underwater, and I don’t think, you can pull me out of this’) It’s a beautiful song consisting of nothing but Scott’s vocals and her acoustic guitar and lyrically speaking is one of the album’s strongest. (‘I am afraid to see my heroes age, I am afraid of disintegration, if you’re not here I cannot be here for ya.’)
Ironically it’s actually one of the few things I would criticize the album for is that all of the acoustic elements of her earlier work have pretty much gone aside from The Exchange, but perhaps a happy balance between these two different styles or something completely different all together will emerge next time around. That being said, Sprinter has been a complete surprise and pleasure to listen to in time for this review. It certainly subverted my expectations and I’d much rather see an artist try something different and risk not succeeding than begin to rely on the sound that people initially gave them attention for and regress and rot away.
If Mackenzie Scott was running away from her past on her debut album then on Sprinter she’s hitting it in a head on collision. The songwriting is better, there’s more texture within the music and her talent shines through as not just another folk singer but a unique individual in her own right. Here’s hoping she takes what she’s learned between making both albums and runs with that instead.