"How many times do I have to tear my innards out?” Spencer Albee asks in “Ten to One,” the final song of his new album, Relentlessly Yours. On the twentieth record of the Portland pop artist's career, it’s not always clear who is asking him to do this.
The majority of songs on Relentlessly Yours, Spencer’s largely self-produced new album, are written in direct address to a beloved other—the “you” in oh, how I loved you. Each of them seems to find Spencer wrestling with, eulogizing, or explaining away an absent love. He doesn't try on characters or throw his voice. He rarely waxes poetic. It’s always, resolutely, his own experience he sings from. We don’t see it another way.
Which is why it’s odd that I don’t always believe him.
Of course, Spencer means what he sings. He certainly feels it, there’s no point considering otherwise. But I don’t believe that what he’s singing about is as simple as this, and I don’t believe Spencer believes it is, either. It’s as if in his tireless pursuit to make his music clear and accessible to anyone who might hear it, he eclipses again and again the complexities of the very real situations he’s describing. At times, it can feel like reading Dostoevsky transcribed by Dr. Seuss.
In opener “Just Like Clockwork,” we get two lines’ worth—about 11 seconds—of a nice melodious verse before getting battered by a syrupy pre-chorus (“He is such an anxious mister / He was close but then he missed her / She is such a fickle sister / He still wishes he could kiss her”). Cleverly, Albee keeps the song's motif by singing each syllable in quarter notes, as if simulating the rhythm of a pendulum on a cuckoo clock. And I have to say it works — the song is certainly hypnotic. It's hard to get out of your head.
Much of the album’s emotional tension is packed into neat little couplets just like these. In “Feeling Lucky,” he sings, “Because you stopped me ‘fore I went too far / ‘cause I admire you for who you are / because you told me it’ll be ok / How did we get here anyway?” A recent online review of Relentlessly Yours—indeed quite a positive one—opted to describe the album’s 11 songs using nothing but Twin Peaks gifs. This comparison is lazy, but I think also wrong. The beauty of Twin Peaks is that our experience of the show far exceeds our capacity to fully understand it. This is not true of Spencer’s music, which he takes great pains to ensure.
This may sound like I’m making a trivial, possibly nitpicky point—and maybe I am. Arguments can be made for simplicity, and certainly songwriters needn’t write from any perspective than their own. Additionally, Albee has written hundreds of songs; I’ve written perhaps four, and most were in a different century. This is a study he has devoted his life to. He’s not only infinitely better at it than me, but virtually every other person reading this review.
Furthermore, this is a style choice, not a shortcoming. And it’s a style that Spencer has adhered to—as much as this casual listener can attest—since his early days in Rustic, Popsicko, As Fast As, and his early solo records. He’s a pop musician first and foremost, to the point where mentioning in a review his acknowledged Paul McCartney influence has been done so many times that those words are permanently linked on Google searches.
Also, Relentlessly Yours contains some straight-up beautiful moments. Tracks nine (“Too Much”) and ten (“Open Heart”), not typically the stretch of an album you’d expect to find highlights, are surprisingly tender and vulnerable. “Too Much” benefits from some lovely guest vocals from Sara Hallie Richardson, and “Open Heart” balances a chirpy melody against a melancholic synth drone. In this track (for this reviewer the album’s best), Spencer stops trying to get us to sing along to him capitulating, clarifying, confessing, and defending himself. “I keep staring at these photographs tucked on my shelf / I can’t open up my heart to anyone else,” he sings, and I believe him there. Furthermore, that’s a hard fucking thing to sing out loud before thousands of people, as he very well may do at the release party for this album later this week, and that shit impresses me mightily. I’m even into it as the dude scats his way through a vacantly cheery vocal melody through the outro.
And all the other stuff Spencer sings about here? I mean, sure, I believe it too. I know the guy, I like the guy, and I don’t think he’s being false. Listening to this record, I’m perfectly willing to accept that I’m the one with the problem, but I can’t pretend it isn’t there. Spencer is accomplished as hell, dedicated as shit, and has entertained tens of thousands of people in this state alone. He has also never quit, even as the entire music industry and social infrastructure have crumbled around him. If there’s anything I’m accusing him of, it’s in keeping this dogged determination to play exclusively within an aesthetic—faintly nostalgic pop music—that better serves the management of icons than it is about conveying the complexity of human experience. McCartney did this too, and that’s why I’ve never liked McCartney. At least until he actively started trolling people with shit like “Simply Having A Wonderful Christmastime.”
But one artist who didn’t do it was Harry Nilsson, a songwriter I know (from sharing this city with him) that Spencer and I both adore. Nilsson wrote beautiful pop songs that were both sickly sweet and achingly depressing. He lusted for success, yes, but he truly did not give a fuck what people thought of him. On the other hand, he lived hard, burned out quick, didn’t treat people super well, and died young and depressed.
By contrast, Spencer just celebrated a marriage, quite publicly on the steps of City Hall, last fall. That Relentlessly Yours is a heart-on-your-sleeve break-up record is obvious, and he seems genuinely thrilled to be on the other side of it, performing its content with a new and accomplished band. People tell their stories however they choose to, governed by factors that those who hear them can never fully understand. That much I believe. I can tell you which of the two songwriters' music makes me feel more alive, but it’s not necessarily who I’d rather live like.
Spencer Albee + Starcrossed Losers + DJ mosart212 | Relentlessly Yours album release party | Friday, June 2 | 8 pm | Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St., Portland | $12-15 | www.portcitymusichall.com
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