There are pandemic albums and there are albums created during the pandemic. Spencer Albee’s new “Popsicko, Vol. 2” is the latter.
Emotionally informed by this time of isolation, it’s not defined by it. Created via the opportunity this time of isolation presented, it doesn’t stand as a monument to it or seem beholden to it.
A lot like what Taylor Swift has been doing with her sisterly records, “Folklore” and “Evermore.”
This is especially hard not to consider when Albee’s work opens with an “Overture” that sounds eerily similar to Swift’s “1989” opener, “Welcome to New York,” grinding low-end synthesizers as mood setters, pierced by bright keyboards.
Of course, where Swift launches into an upbeat, aggressive, optimistic melody, here Albee meanders, more lost in thought. Because he made his “1989” 20 years ago with the coming-out party that was “Vol. 1,” or, more accurately, “Frankenstein Presents the Popsicko, Vol. 1.” Back then, Albee traded more openly in bombast, a brash 24-year-old with the world at his fingertips.
Now, at 44, he wonders, “Is There Anybody Left?,” where he offers in a relaxed vocal that “these days, I try to pay attention” and in a contemplative and quiet bridge reflects, “as I’m sifting through the ashes, I find some good that I have done/ I just wish that all this wreckage, didn’t weigh a ton.”
Following a 20-year career marked by constant reinvention, it’s hard not to hear an artist settling into himself and the self-reflection that one’s mid-40s provide, along with an acknowledgment he’s never going to figure out what exactly the trick is to Swiftian fame and fortune.
Instead, he’s going to make what he likes. Whether that’s a rollicking, dead on cover of “Stuck in the Middle,” stuck right in the middle of this new album, or a straightforward album-rock tune like “Terribly Long Horse,” where he seems to chide the chattering critics and finishes the chorus by declaring, “there ain’t nobody here knows how to work this thing/ How do you work this thing?”
Every musician feels it at some point: That notion that if they could just sing this way or write that way, adulation would be right around the corner. Every musician has scrutinized the most recent hit and thought, “How did they do it?”
So often, Albee has made his best work collaborating with others. And just like Swift has brought in the likes of HAIM and the National to help out with her pandemic records, Albee gets the vocal backing of Katie Matzell on the nostalgic, keyboard-filled “Thinking of You,” which features a beautiful descend in the chorus: “How’s your mom/ How’s your dog/ How’s your kids/ How’s your job?” And Ghost of Paul Revere’s Griffin Sherry returns the favor Albee provided to Ghost’s excellent 2020 album by teaming with Albee’s Bell Systems collaborator Geneviève Beaudoin for melancholy playfulness and adulting on “Broken, Drunk, and Stoned”:
“I know it seems easier to be broke and drunk and stoned,” the trio harmonizes in the chorus. “but even love can’t pick you up when you keep yourself so low.”
On “Destroy the Plastique Man Pt. 2: Everybody Wants Someone To Love,” a reference to yet another Albee project, the “As Fast As” album from 2008, he even goes in for some vocal distortion that hints at the signature autotune used by Justin Vernon, of whom Swift has made late use. It’s probably the best song on the record, with a grit and edge some other pieces could benefit from, and a bounce that is particularly danceable in the chorus, where there is just a touch of keyboard in the lower mix, sitting at the bottom of your ears.
A little like David Mitchell’s literary universe, Albee’s projects benefit from the ways they build upon and reference one another. On his 2015 record, “Mistakes Were Made,” he released “So Bad (Open Letter to the Damned, Part 2),” a follow to his “As Fast As” song and record of the same name as well as a turnabout of one of his best tracks, “So Good.” When you hear “As Fast As” guitarist Zach Jones on “Epsilon 12 (Cilantro Is Not For Everybody),” and elsewhere, his contribution is as valuable for his high harmonies as for the pleasant feeling of deja vu.
Ultimately, this work isn’t about big singles or pop stylings, but instead a sort of musical comfort food. There are the space-age keyboards, the smart turns of phrase, the funky low-end runs, the singalong choruses, the love of the ’70s and ’80s rock and pop on which Albee cut his teeth. Evermore.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 weeks, 5 songs
Locals deliver with some great new Christmas tunes:
• Dean Ford, “Wishlist (This Christmas)” — Word is, Ford is working on a big new pop release, but for the time being this super-fun Christmas pop, perfectly made for a romantic romp, will tide you over.
• An Overnight Low, “Gold Star” — Released to benefit the Center for Grieving Children, this has a bit of Guided by Voices or Replacements to it, with an indie-rock irony that blends over to earnestness.
• Grand Hotel, “The Sound” — An urgent, driving rock with a resounding six-note chord progression in the post-chorus, this is one of three new tracks Grand Hotel have released on “The Sampler,” their first new work since 2011’s very strong “in color.”
• Love by Numb3rs, “Lost in the Deep Snow” — The first release from an exciting new project that reunites the original Gypsy Tailwind duo of Anna Lombard and Dan Connor, who trade verses with a countrified twang and are supported by Rustic Overtones bassist Jon Roods.
• Anthony Maintain, “Hashtag Activist” — An incineration of those who are loud online, but don’t do the work, this is the clarity of thought shown by the best indie hip-hop. Grab the full EP, “Ghost Pipes,” from Fake Four Inc. on Bandcamp.
— Sam Pfeifle