Above all, MS MR has an affinity for the theatrical. They emerged anonymously in the summer heat last year and dropped the dangerously intoxicating “Hurricane,” followed by the eerie Candy Bar Creep Show EP in the fall. The cloak of anonymity fell away shortly afterwards to reveal the dual masterminds behind the project: Brooklynites Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow.
If you feel a strange sensation of déjà vu while listening to Secondhand Rapture, it is probably because you have heard the majority of it before. Nearly half of the tracks that compose MS MR’s debut album are recycled from their previously meager repertoire of five songs. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In the grand scheme of Secondhand Rapture, those five tracks form some of the stronger moments.
“Hurricane” is still the dusky, vintage-sounding gem it always was. “Bones” and “Dark Doo Wop” retain their funerary cadence and reverberated vocals to produce a chilling, graveyard ambiance. “Fantasy,” with its stampede of synths, drums, and bells, remains a key source of adrenaline. “Ash Tree Lane” in particular, makes its presence felt in this segment of the album, an island of levity kept afloat in the dismal straits by bright piano strokes and plenty of ooh oohs.
The problem with Secondhand Rapture comes when it deviates from the sonic séance that MS MR created in their earlier works. Plapinger and Hershenow found their niche in occult, gothic sing-alongs arranged over atmospheric synthesizers. Despite the marked difference between the two halves of Secondhand Rapture (which could be divided into old and new sections), there is an admirable ambition on the part of MS MR to shake things up and try to branch out from the narrow genre in which they have, up until this point, cemented themselves.
One particularly large misstep is the stereotypical get-over-you ballad “Think Of You.” Aiming for a catharsis over twinkling synths and military drums, Plapinger sings “I still think of you and all the shit you put me through / And I know you were wrong,” landing not in Florence Welch emotional exorcism territory, but rather in a realm of Taylor Swift knock-offs, attempting to find a way to overcome her latest heartbreak through passé lyrics with little depth. It sounds nothing short of sophomoric.
However, despite the occasional weak vertebrae, MS MR’s new work has a strong backbone. “BTSK” is a deconstructed slow-burner, inexorably moving forward like a lava flow driven by apocalyptic percussion. “No Trace” stands out as the most bombastic track on Secondhand Rapture. Plapinger’s vocals are alluringly incorporeal as always, but the real star here is Hershenow’s production. It is utterly expansive and symphonic, filling every iota of air with the urgent melody of synthesizers, drums, and most critically, violins.
The perfect marriage of lyric and melody takes form on “Head Is Not My Home.” Plapinger is at her most assertive proclaiming “My mouth / Your lips / Your hands / My hips,” wielding the chiasmus like a scepter as she directs you to do her bidding. The best song on Secondhand Rapture also happens to be its most atypical. Abandoning the tried-and-true formula of darkness-inflected, synth-heavy pop, Hershenow takes “Head Is Not My Home” in an opposite direction. Whereas, it could have easily become another synthetic supernova in the vein of “No Trace,” the track takes a sharp turn with added twang that gives it a folk flavor. Eventually, it swells and spirals out of control, finally achieving that cathartic release that evades MS MR elsewhere.
It does not always work, but in short, orchestral bursts, MS MR demonstrate that they can transcend the confines of goth synth-pop, and produce one of the most memorable debuts of the year. But that begs the question: why did they not just start fresh on Secondhand Rapture? [B]