Carefully laid plans aside, Regina Spektor’s fourth major-label album is a tour-de-force which requires fans to finally dive full-on into the artist’s tantalizing musical world. No singles radio will play? That doesn’t prevent Spektor from launching the year’s best album to her adoring fans.
Regina Spektor – “What We Saw From The Cheap Seats” (2012, Sire / Wea)
Talk about damning with faint praise. The pre-release reviews tricking out from major outlets imply it’s somehow uncool to like Regina Spektor for being herself in the most honest sense of that word. Let’s get this out there: who gives a damn if she never has another hit like “Fidelity.” Every album since her magnificent Soviet Kitsch has been hamstrung as she kept the toes of one foot stretched equally between the pools of mainstream popularity and art-house credibility, a strained musical relationship as difficult to maintain as the Vulcan salute.
Finally, with What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, she embraces her originality and creates an album of soaring intense wit and whimsy. “All Rowboats” is a call to arms. She’s not about to create careful, cloistered melodies which are meant to sit and suffer behind closed doors, like art-house paintings, but she also won’t create neutered nuggets of lowest-common denominator pop. These songs are meant to physically remove us from our comfort zones.
The album is brief, with eleven songs making up a brisk 40 minutes positively bursting with creative musical energy. From the opening of “Small Town Moon,” which attempts to lull us into submission before her deft arrangement twists listeners through tempo shifts and tonal dissonance. “Today we’re younger than we’re ever gonna be,” she sings, before hooting her way into the blast of chorus drums. “What’s the hurry? Go on baby, don’t you worry worry — everybody’s not so nice nice! I thought you ought to know by now.”
These songs aren’t so “nice nice” either, but she’s made her statement, remaining free to twist the screws in incremental bursts as she carries listeners through her highly literate, thoughtful pop experiments. Whether we’re seeing politicians through a literal whorehouse mirror on “Ballad of a Politician” or breathing deeply to stay afloat at the culmination of the build-up to “Open,” What We Saw From The Cheap Seats continually crackles and pops with artistic energy. That’s something she hasn’t been able to say in years, as she tried to strike that balance between being a Grey’s Anatomy indie darling and staying true to her creative roots.
“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good — oh, Lord please don’t let me be misunderstood,” she sings on “Oh Marcello” and it’s hard not to hear a bit of herself through the veil of the character sketch. No longer a split personality, she focuses fully on just being herself, “perpetually human, suspended and open.” She imbues her music with soul, something none of her imitators successfully echo despite their best efforts. What We Saw From The Cheap Seats is destined to be misunderstood upon release but, viewed as a masterclass in creative focus, it successfully emerges as her finest effort yet.