I can’t even pretend to be objective about this week’s review.
Andrea Dawn is one of my best friends. I’ve known her for years, and we talk about pretty much everything. I somehow convinced her to watch all of Doctor Who with me – yes, all 33 seasons and counting – and we’ve been chronicling that journey here. And while I am not involved in her musical career, I do get to hear all about it, so I’ve been keeping track of the creation of her new album, Doll, for a year and a half or so. I’ve also been living with the finished product for months, despite the fact that it was officially released on Record Store Day.
I’m telling you all this up front because I’m going to wax lyrical for a while this week about how good Doll is. It’s an album that will, almost without doubt, find its way into my top 10 list this year, and has already added immeasurably to the soundtrack of my life. I want you to know my biases up front, because I’m going to try to convince you that they don’t matter. Those who know me know to expect a sometimes uncomfortable level of honesty. Andrea knows that if I honestly disliked her record, I would tell her. And I would tell you.
So I’m about to go on, at length, about this extraordinary album called Doll. And I hope you believe me when I tell you that even if I didn’t know Andrea, even if our paths had never crossed, I would still consider this an extraordinary album. I would still have bought it, and fallen in love with it, and let it pull me in and break my heart. Whether you believe me or not, I hope I can convince you give this record a try.
Doll is a portrait of a relationship, from the first flush of infatuation to the bitter, angry embers of separation. In truth, it’s not about any single relationship, but it feels like it is, and it plays like a story – Dawn starts out walking on air, falls back to earth and, in the end, dusts herself off and surveys the damage. This isn’t a revolutionary form for an album to take, but Dawn’s raw honesty makes Doll feel fresh and enveloping. It’s meant to be heard from first note to last, and once you experience it, you won’t want to hear it any other way.
This is Dawn’s second album, following 2010’s Theories of How We Can Be Friends. I liked that record, with some reservations – while it certainly served as a coming out party, there were some timid and ill-considered moments on it. Not so this new album. Every element of Dawn’s sound has grown in leaps and bounds, from the songwriting to the arrangements, and even to her voice. She takes more chances vocally on this record, like she’s less afraid to fail. Her voice is powerful and sultry, and though she is clearly classically trained, she pushes herself here, cracking at the right moments, adding that extra oomph at others.
Dawn follows in the tradition of girl-and-a-piano singer-songwriters – her favorite artist is Fiona Apple, which gives you a hint at what to expect here. Two things set her apart – her songs, which bring together nakedly confessional lyrics with tricky, sometimes elliptical structures, and her flair for the dramatic. Doll sounds like a million-dollar record – it was, in fact, largely paid for through a Kickstarter campaign that raised $5,246, but you’d never know the budget was so small. The sonic detail is impressive, and the arrangements are huge and elaborate.
But for the first time, I feel like Dawn is in control of everything here. Some elements of Theories threatened to fly away from her, but Doll, despite the fact that it is bigger and more ambitious, feels completely within her reach. It’s a sign of how much she’s grown, how adept she’s become at crafting her little worlds. Two of these songs are stark, featuring nothing but piano and vocal, and it’s no accident that they’re the bookends, pulling you into and out of this story. In between there are strings and horns and chimes and mellotrons and operatic backing vocals and vibes and half a dozen other things. So much is crammed in, and perfectly balanced, that you won’t even notice that there aren’t any guitars on here at all.
Doll’s first half focuses on love songs, beginning with the gorgeous opener, “Days Upon Days.” With nothing but a piano and her voice, Dawn sets the stage, reveling in her new love: “I could try to count the ways, I get lost for days upon days upon days…” It’s a song of infatuation, of losing yourself in someone else, and she adds a hint of danger: “He’s got me shaking inside that I might fall apart in due time,” she sings, before convincing herself that “it feels fine.”
She dares him to come after her in “Tameable,” a grand slow burner that brings in the rest of the band. While most of the instruments were played by Dawn and Zach Goforth, the secret weapon of this album is drummer Dan Knighten. He doesn’t so much write drum patterns as he pulls them from another universe – his work is so bizarre that it often takes a listen or two to make sense of it. He’s relatively straightforward on “Tameable,” but so is the song – “If you want me, you must let me know, I won’t always be so tameable,” Dawn sings, before the strings and mellotrons sweep in. The little piano figure that follows the choruses here is one of my favorite things on the record.
Doll follows the same initial structure as Theories, beginning with stark simplicity, ratcheting it up a notch on track two, and letting loose on track three. That third song is “All the Other Girls,” the first single, and it rocks like little else here. Intended, Dawn says, as a song of gratitude for her audience, it still fits in with the narrative, exposing insecurities about those “pretty little girls” who have everything in the verses while taking solace in the choruses: “But they don’t have you, and they’d better not try to, they can have everything else in the world…” Knighten shows off his chops here, and Goforth’s string and vibes arrangements are sublime.
The next two are songs of devotion, and they’re among the prettiest things Dawn has ever written. They’re also songs I didn’t like much upon first listen. “Your Face, Your Shoes” (there’s a long story behind that title) is an amiable ramble that benefits greatly from its off-kilter production. It’s a simple piece, with a simple sentiment: “I wasn’t expecting to, but I think I do, I think I like you.” “Lion Tamer” finds her in full-on love, and the song makes its relative simplicity work for it. Over delicate piano and strings, Dawn gives herself: “I will stare hopelessly at you, there’s not much else I can do…” I initially dismissed “Lion Tamer” in favor of the more complex pieces waiting in the album’s back half, but now I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s perfect.
The title track kicks off the second half, and it’s the trickiest and most oblique piece on the record. It’s a real showcase for Knighten – I have no idea where he pulled this drum part from, but it’s remarkable. It sounds wrong at first, like it’s working against Goforth’s lovely string lines, but once you get used to it, it fits in snugly. This is also a showcase for Dawn’s voice – she’s singing the operatic parts, and when she belts out the melody on the bridge, it’s powerful stuff. “Doll” is a song about using someone: “They’ll call us sinners, we’ll mess around, that’s all I want from you for now.” It’s the first hint that things are about to go south, but the dissolution of this relationship leads to the best music on the album.
“Two Sides,” remarkably, almost didn’t make the final running order. I can’t imagine the album without it. It’s a jolt of energy at a key point – as Knighten’s drums wail, Goforth’s bass line thumps and Dawn pounds away on the keys, she snarls, “I’m gonna get hurt.” The chorus is revealing: “It makes no sense, it’s not smart, forgive me but that’s the best part.” Just when you think you’ve heard the whole song, it elevates some more, breaking into a tremendous bridge and a jammy section that finds Dawn dueling with the string section. “Kiss me sweetly, love me completely, there’s two sides to everything,” she pleads. This song is masterful.
It all comes to a head on “Everything is Everything,” the one moment here of true anger. “Don’t say you hate everything but you love me,” she spits, “‘cause everything is everything.” This is the most elaborate song on the record, a collision of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (dig that upright bass thump) and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” a cornucopia of sound anchored by Knighten’s powerhouse drumming. It ends in rancor: “You haven’t found it, I think you should find it somewhere else…”
Dawn spends the final two songs standing in the wreckage, and they’re both ruinously beautiful. “Love Always” gets my vote for Dawn’s best song – it’s a straightforward, resigned piece with a glorious melody. “Love always fades away when you need it to stay, and love always hangs around when you need it to fade,” she sings, while a French horn plays mournfully in the distance. Her voice has never sounded better – she sings the hell out of this song, and it’ll shatter your heart.
If, by some chance, some part of you remains unbroken by “Love Always,” “Conversations” will finish the job. It’s just piano and voice, and is a final, bitter kiss-off. It is perhaps the quietest piece of defiance I have heard, nothing more than piano and voice, and it leaves no doubt that the relationship that has been at the heart of this record is over. “Control your stare and don’t you dare come anywhere near me,” she sings, before declaring, “If you don’t want me, you don’t get me.” The record’s last line is a moment of power: “I’ve got a lot to give, and I’m going to make sure you don’t get any more of it.” It’s hard to cheer this, but it sounds like a hard-won victory.
Doll is a difficult emotional ride – it’s tough to listen to the joy of “Lion Tamer” crumble into the despair of “Love Always” only four songs later. But it’s a brave and rewarding one, an astonishingly honest piece of work that will connect with anyone who has been through similar territory. It’s one of my favorite records of the year, quite separate from the fact that I know its author. If Theories was a slightly timid calling card, Doll is an album that can sit proudly with the best of today’s singer-songwriters. It’s the full flowering of a superb talent, and I can’t wait to hear more.
Next week, more quick ones with Lykke Li, Justin Currie and others. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.