On her debut, this English singer-songwriter combines intimate themes with songs that start as ethereal ballads and build to a dramatic catharsis.
Reading the lyrics sheet that comes with Polly Scattergood’s self-titled debut album can feel a bit like stumbling upon a stranger’s cryptic yet intensely personal blog. It’s all raw emotion and strident self-affirmation, but the sentiment is presented without much context or concrete detail, which makes her confessional statements come across with an awkward, anonymous intimacy. It’s clear that she’s spilling her guts and needs to express herself, but even at her most direct, it’s difficult not to get the impression that she is keeping herself at a distance from her audience. We may relate to what she is singing– there is a good chance of this, given that she’s mostly writing about general relationship drama– but there is a quiet implication that these songs are all about her, and only her. This is not unengaging or uninteresting, but it can be rather uninviting.
Scattergood’s songs tend to follow the same structural arc, building from fragile, ethereal balladry up to a highly dramatic catharsis, usually in the form of an enormous stadium-blasting crescendo. She allows some tracks, such as “Untitled 27” and “Bunny Club”, to be relatively understated, but even her least bombastic cuts have an escalating tension, and convey a sense of desperation and urgency. Clearly, subtlety is not Scattergood’s strong suit. She is at her best when she goes all the way, and pairs the potent emotions of her lyrics with unabashedly anthemic choruses. This is especially true on the single “Nitrogen Pink”, which hits its multiple climaxes with incredible gusto without losing its essential, highly feminine grace, and basically sounds like Kate Bush doing her own version of “Born to Run”. “Other Too Endless” hits a similar sweet spot with its sweeping, lovesick melodrama, and “Unforgiving Arms” tugs on the heartstrings with such ruthless precision that it would seem like a waste if it never ended up soundtracking a break-up scene in a romantic comedy.
But there are two big problems with this record. The first is that a little bit of Scattergood goes a long, long way, and her relentless grandiosity wears thin very quickly. Though the album is sequenced to separate the biggest numbers, the result is nevertheless draining, and it’s all too easy to tire of the album long before coming along to the best tracks, which are mostly in the back-end. The second issue is that, while she does include some interesting musical textures on “Nitrogen Pink” and “I Hate the Way”, Scattergood leans hard on cold, uninspired tones that could be heard on any number of bland, over-produced efforts churned out by major labels. This does not always derail her songs, but the sheer dullness of some of the instrumentation exacerbates the overall drag of the album, and takes the emphasis off of the more distinct and endearing aspects of her voice and persona.