Nicole Atkins: “Mondo Amore”

Loads of great stuff on this one, from a young singer/songwriter who has grown leaps and bounds both as a performer and as a record-maker, but let me get this one, perhaps slightly sketchy analogy out of the way right off the bat: I’m not sure if it’s because I’m writing this in the heat of Oscar season or because Mondo Amore showed up in my mailbox around the same time I caught the fever for the most recent Darren Arnofsky film, but whatever the case, I feel rather like this is, to some extent, the Black Swan of pop/soul albums– not because there’s any Tchaikovsky homage here, or even any lyrics suggesting some kind of girl-on-girl scenario, but rather because Nicole Atkins embraces, both whole-heartedly and with a keen sense of craft, genre conventions and a certain sense of melodrama, harnessing what could, in lesser hands, be mere camp and transforming it into a vivid and raw emotional palette.

Which is all by way of saying, Atkins reminds me, both as a singer and as a writer, of Florence Welch, but without the swords-and-sorcerers imagery and fairy tale tropes, and with a significantly more intimate sense of the theatrical. There’s nothing on this record that will remind you of a deranged, way-off-Broadway musical in the same way that the Florence and the Machine album did, but there is certainly a sense in which story and genre are used here as implements of Atkins’ deeply expressive songcraft. If Florence’s album imagined romantic matters as cinematic fantasia, Atkins’ imagines affairs of the heart as much smaller-scale, close-to-the-bone fever dreams turned into pop songs. There is a spacey quality to the recording that makes it sound, indeed, like the whole thing is unfolding inside the singer’s headspace, but there is a level of grit, and a real-world punch culled from country, soul, and blues, that makes the emotions cut deep.

There might be no better case in point than “Cry, Cry, Cry,” the kind of old-timey R&B anthem that is designed for the express purpose of being belted out by a powerhouse vocalist, a task Atkins is more than capable of handling. It isn’t difficult at all to imagine the song turned into a sort of neo-soul chart-topper, and indeed, it could have been given a slightly more pedestrian (and probably much less interesting) treatment from an Amy Winehouse or an Adele, but this arrangement is twisted, given a perverse sense of dementia by a really nasty guitar riff that runs through it, sounding almost like it was borrowed from a Queens of the Stone Age record, and also making me think Atkins would make a perfect partner in crime for Jack White, whose schedule seems to have opened up as of late. The lyric is a pretty standard love-gone-wrong lament, but it’s constructed perfectly– there’s a real momentum to it– and the production lends it sinister undercurrents.

Contrast that with the song that follows it, “Hotel Plaster,” which isn’t quite as standard as far as the words go; it’s more of a gothic confessional that would have almost fit on the Florence record, except it’s played almost straight as a country weepy. Atkins embraces the melodrama present in the lyric without overplaying it, and the production has its feet in both worlds; there’s a high-and-lonesome wail piercing the chorus that sounds at times like a mournful pedal steel, at times like howling banshees. Atkins displays a formal mastery on every song here, and she’s got a great way of playing up the inherent humor, heartache, or just-plain-weirdness in some of these traditions without it sounding like a put-on, or a caricature: Witness how “My Baby Don’t Lie” imitates a classic country-blues sound but turns it in on itself, how the lyric crosses murder-ballad violence with soulful lament, and how the craft of the song allows it to cut deep– as though it isn’t just a formal endeavor but something that really happened, and left the scars to prove it.

And there is a lot of pain throughout, something evident from the get-go, the ominous swirl of “Vultures” opening the record with a promise of prolonged menace, but what impresses the most is how the record sustains its psychosexual terror and heartbreak over a variety of moods and modes that gives it nuance and variety as well as a thematic coherence: The gleeful sense of kitschiness that informs something like “Hotel Plaster,” for instance, takes a backseat on the more straightforwardly cathartic rock and roll numbers like “You Come to Me” and “This is For Love,” songs that suggest Atkins learned her blues from Led Zeppelin records and lingered longest over the psychedelic stuff, while “War is Hell” is sort of a languid soul ballad that turns jazzy conventions and a Jim James harmony into a soundtrack for raw ache and internal torment.

But for all the album’s darkness, I find it to be exhilarating, and for much the same reason that I like Florence Welch; I’m simply delighted to hear a young and talented singer/songwriter choose a means of self-expression that’s so thoroughly out of touch with what you might hear from a lot of her peers. The last song on the record, called “The Tower,” is a riveting, visceral slice of gothic doom that’s remarkable when you consider that the singer, just making her second album, is staking out an emotional and artistic ground that’s defined by a really tricky balance of melodrama and intimacy, and that she seems, quite naturally, to trace her creative lineage back to forefathers like Scott Walker and Nick Cave. And for all that, I like this album better than the Florence one, if only because that sense of emotional balance is handled better: I feel more like this is an album made by a real human being and not a drama nerd on steroids, and can even hear the album as a pretty natural turn in the evolution of a certain strand of blues. Not an unwelcome development, I might add, when the music is this good.

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