THREE FUTURES (LP)

THREE FUTURES (LP)

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The new album from singer-songwriter Mackenzie Scott is her most ambitious work by an order of magnitude. It’s an electric-electronic hybrid that is lush, physical, and full of contradictions.
“Writing just to save my life/You stretch barelegged across each line/What ghost crawled inside my guitar?” sang Mackenzie Scott on her debut album as Torres, cutting a familiar figure: a singer with a thing for stripped-down arrangements and a propensity for autobiographical brooding. She slotted her bruises and her confessions into a singer-songwriter mode with a distinctly 1990s air—snaky guitar figures, smoldering feedback, the intensity of an interlocutor laying a sudden hand upon your forearm—and on the follow-up, Sprinter, she grew into that mold, perfected it. Her indie-rock sound filled up and spilled over; her private ghosts cavorted with wisps of Nirvana and PJ Harvey, and she even picked up a few of the latter’s collaborators to help her achieve her vision. She got more ambitious with her songwriting—trying on new personas, folding in literary references, even daring to assume the voice of God (no small thing for a young woman raised Baptist in Macon, Ga. who still professes to follow and fear her Creator). She got more ambitious with her voice, too: exploring its strength and its frailty, learning her way around its pockmarks and potholes, soaring one minute and in the next, treating a cracking note as gingerly as a tree climber might tread upon a broken branch.

More than a continuation of that trajectory, Three Futures feels like a quantum leap. There are more voices, more perspectives—In “Three Futures,” she’s a tumescent teenaged boy getting “hard/In your car/In the parking lot”; in “Righteous Woman,” she’s an “ass man” spreading her knees wide on the subway—and her writing is more vivid than ever. In the opener, the Brooklyn-based singer finds her Southern roots in “A peach cobbler sunning/Belly-up on the granite/The kind that’ll make your/Tongue slap all your brains out.” And her penchant for frank self-analysis has gotten less prosaic and more probing. Throughout Three Futures, you can hear her rethinking what kind of artist she wants to be, and she has evidently arrived at the decision that “singer-songwriter” need not be synonymous with fingerpicking and first-person testimonials. The opening song crests like an orange sunrise, and over the course of the record, that luminous sound envelops you in a mantle of buzz and shimmer, an electric-electronic hybrid that is lush, physical, and full of contradictions.

Torres has typically written about relationships—romantic ones as well as the bonds between daughter and family, between supplicant and God—but this time out, she says, she had bodies and pleasure on the mind, and Kraftwerk and Can on the stereo. It’s an unexpected plot twist, but the shift is immediately apparent in the programmed drum machines and ruminatively looped floor toms. Scott says that she actually plays more guitar on this record than ever before, but you’d never know it—the white-hot filaments of tone snaking through the frame might be guitars masquerading as synths, or vice versa. PJ Harvey’s percussionist and producer Rob Ellis, who co-produced Sprinter, is back, but little of that record’s indie-rock naturalism has been carried over. There are glitches that sound like Oval and supple synth melodies reminiscent of Music for the Masses-era Depeche Mode. This is music that cloaks its sources, that revels in the possibilities afforded by the recording studio.

“Fun” is not a word anyone would attach to Torres’ previous albums, but you can tell that Scott and her collaborators had a ball making this one. “Helen in the Woods” is a hoot: The story of an unhinged stalker and the small town agog at whatever must’ve “made her whiskers curl,” it looms as large as a Hollywood adaptation of a Stephen King novel. Shouting and spitting, Torres might be a heavy metal singer or a speaker-in-tongues—savor the way she dredges the bottom of her range as she rumbles, “Helen’s funny in the head.” Elsewhere, she attacks breath like a sculptor might marble, chips flying as the words take shape beneath her chisel. It’s hard to overstate how much pleasure they’ve baked into the production—the strobing helicopter noises that lend “Helen” its silver-screen excess; the Brian Eno-like guitar filigree that fills the second half of “Marble Focus” so seductively, you barely notice her voice has gone quiet.

The sumptuousness of the record is such that it carries you even when her lyrical conceits fly wide of the mark. Some of her imagery is so specific that it can feel like paging through a journal that has been written largely in code. And sometimes, in her desire for drama, she oversells it: Her cock-rock inflections on “Righteous Woman” only point up the slightly underwhelming subject matter—long-distance booty-call fantasies that don’t merit the overblown treatment. But when she nails it, she really nails it. The languid, tentative title track would be beautiful no matter what the lyrics; that it turns out to be the rarest kind of love song—one addressed to a lover she abandoned—and is so full of regret and empathy (“I hope what you will remember/Is not how I left, but how I entered”) only makes it that much more awe-inducing.

As ever, she saves the best for last. The closing song, “To Be Given a Body,” is a quiet tour de force. Over a soft, ambient flutter, she takes one of the album’s most intensely personal memories—a succession of snapshots, a suggestion of paths taken being measured against paths not—and spins it out into one of the record’s most universal sentiments. “To be given a body is the greatest gift,” she intones, and then, a few lines later: “Laugh until I can’t breathe/Laugh until I can’t breathe.” She has said that it was the last song she completed, “as it was the one I was avoiding writing the most,” and you can hear that hesitant reckoning in her faltering voice. “I start to write once I’ve been made to feel powerless in some way,” she said around the time of Sprinter; “I like to subvert that and have the last word.” Here, though, it sounds like she is tiptoeing beyond that need for control. Torres ended with a would-be jumper asking a waterfall if it ever regretted taking the leap; Sprinter found her drowning under her own fear of mortality. But this, a song about bodies that verges on disembodiment, feels like letting go. Here, at the end of a daring and remarkable album, it feels like she’s earned it.