Regina Spektor doesn’t write anything down. Even as she composes songs, hunched over her piano at the crack of dawn, she doesn’t record a single refrain. It’s no wonder, then, that she’s garnered a reputation as the oddball princess of baroque pop. Whether she’s mimicking dolphin noises, gasping gutturally between bars, or simply refusing to write down her music, Spektor is known for combining classical popcraft with distinct eccentricity. In the past, this technique has been hit or miss. 2004’s Soviet Kitsch was clever but underwhelming; bestseller Begin To Hope soared to critical and popular acclaim; and 2009 release Far strayed into nauseatingly cutesy territory. Luckily, Spektor’s latest album has hit the mark precisely. On What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, she offers an elegant and often dark collection of songs that masterfully balances maturity and playful wit.
What We Saw From The Cheap Seats opens with one of Spektor’s best songs in years. With lyrical leaps from complex imagery to poignant simplicity, “Small Town Moon” is an emotive model of classical composition. Next, Spektor plays with a tension between despair and exuberance on “Oh Marchello.” At times she sings in a dramatic and often funny Italian accent, before borrowing lyrics from Nina Simone’s 1964 “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” It’s a track that shows Spektor at her best as she invokes both a childlike sense of glee and an affecting plea for recognition.
Then comes “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas),” a buoyant tune with a carefree air and a calypso backbone. Maintaining the fullest sound on the album, it harkens back to the early days of Spektor’s fame, when “Fidelity” played on every station and anti-folk was the word on every New Yorker’s lips. From there, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats slows down significantly with three gorgeous soulful tunes. Displaying her impressive range and songwriting talent, these tracks are like Spektor’s hymnal love songs to her piano. When she picks the tempo back up for “All The Rowboats,” Spektor achieves a menacing sense of urgency in her most hair-raising track to date. Haunting, insistent, and nearly bombastic, “All The Rowboats” describes images of art coming to life as “all the rowboats in the oil paintings / they keep trying to row away.”
What We Saw From The Cheap Seats continues with the cautionary, creeping “Ballad of a Politician” and the guttural “Open.” On the latter, she punctuates each phrase with a raspy wheeze that underscores the desperate undertones of a song both ominous and hopeful. The album winds down with “The Party” — the weakest track on the album, and the only to verge on Deschanel-esque levels of cutesy — and “Jessica” — a soft guitar lullaby.
Despite its impressive variety, or perhaps because of it, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats is fully cohesive. On an album both sinister and uplifting, Regina Spektor secures her place as the queen of quirky pop. Interestingly enough, Spektor recently told NPR that a number of these tracks are over ten years old, which, given her lack of written record, means they’ve been tumbling around her head for a full decade. And perhaps that’s the key: like Spektor herself, these songs have gradually evolved into the gorgeous and strong treasures they are today. Darker than her earlier albums, and undeniably more interesting, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats catapults Regina Spektor onto a new plateau of maturity and elegance.