We value auteur musicians as paragons of the field. We value them because they have the force of will to truly impose their singular vision on a project. This year’s most complete example of this may be Empress Of, Lorely Rodriguez’s electronic pop alter ego. On the appropriately named Me, she takes total control of the album, handling not just production, instrumentation and songwriting, but the recording and engineering as well. The final product feels like an artist’s complete, uncompromised vision, and it’s impressive from end to end.
Me is an album of crushingly introspective songwriting set to certifiably exciting dance music. Part of what makes it work is Rodriguez’s conception of vocal melodies, which are frequently interesting and take the lead, towing all the other musical elements along. Often she’ll sing melodies that take confident and unexpected left turns to keep listeners engaged, whether they’re in the car or on the dance floor. And it should be heard on a dance floor — that allure is strong on Me. Whether it’s the noodling jazz horns on “How Do You Do It” or the perfectly timed bass synth on “Standard”, these songs have beats and flourishes that make you wish you were hearing them at a late night club that plays emotionally-charged pop music, nestled between Phantogram and Twin Shadow.
Every song has key x-factors that transform already solid works into longer-lasting excitement. On “Kitty Kat” it’s the beat comprised of lo-fi cymbal punches. On “To Get By” it’s a touch of high pitch, dissonant bells that contrast with thick, bustling electronic bass. On “Threat”, it’s a searing hot plasma laser synth that slides its way into and out of existence. These secret ingredients solidify Me as not just fun to move to, but worthy of your close attention. It’s versatile as a party or through headphones consuming your rapt imagination.
With all that going on musically, no one would dock Me points if it didn’t dedicate the same resources to writing lyrics. It could easily lean on a few verbal hooks, and on a couple of tracks it does. But the majority of Me has as much exploration of the inner emotional life as any coffeehouse singer-songwriter album. The aforementioned “Threat” is an examination of the past’s baggage, while “Need Myself” shows us the fight to get out of a relationship and pin down some empowering feeling. If the volume of words don’t fill a page, the depth of the ideas certainly can.
Strangely, the fact that she doesn’t try to make lyrics a secondary concern compels you to judge it by singer-songwriter standards. That set of standards calls for emotional atmospheres that compliment their subject, and in that light, Me can feel like it has only one or two gears. These songs were written with the intent of providing a fun live performance, but a side effect of that is that we frequently find ourselves in same gear. Whether she sings about cat calling or the sanctity of water or passionate lust, the sonic result is always something upbeat and infectious. As great as it sounds, it also overrides an emotional core that might be pulling your heart in another direction.
Only the album closer, “Icon”, feels like a distinct cool down and decompression. The song takes its time prowling around, giving center stage to Rodriguez’s lyrics, as she describes a high, isolated state of being that is both dreamy and painfully heavy. She sings reflectively: “I took too many pills to be sleeping”, and “I don’t want to feel this, just in a room with the lights on” and “There’s no one who knows I’m their icon.” In a way, the song is a rewarding pay-off. There’s so much energy and struggle built into the meat of the album, by the end it’s nice to be taken by the hand and laid down to rest. B