The 2013 self-titled debut from Mackenzie Scott, the Georgia-born singer-songwriter who records with a backing band as Torres, was a collection of narrative rock songs that performed and exorcised personal trauma. On Torres, Scott forced herself to inhabit some low human moments — some of them possibly autobiographical and others obviously imagined — to wring measures of redemption and beauty from them. She risked a great deal by hanging the effect of her songwriting on her own performance of vulnerability and suffering. In the course of her music, she exposed herself as fragile, naked, ashamed, and self-destructive.
The best song on Torres was surely “Honey”, a shattering, cataclysmic stadium rocker about the terror of expressing one’s feelings to an object of (romantic, platonic, whatever) affection. In “Honey”, we can hear the central dynamic of Torres at work. The narrator vents a torrent of aggression that could and maybe should be directed outward, toward an object, but which instead becomes twisted out of love or fear or both, and is ultimately redirected inward toward herself. “Honey” is a song so huge and angry that, on the right soundsystem, it sounds like it could swallow up the world. Thus, the core tragedy of its story is that the narrator ends up only devouring herself.
Scott’s characters, many of whose histories draw upon aspects of her own life but many of whom seem to differ from her in significant ways, are still willing to hold themselves accountable. But it only takes about twenty seconds of listening to Torres’ new album Sprinter to recognize that their more negative feelings – anger and hatred – have broken free from the cycles of self-loathing. The world of Sprinter isn’t a simple one. But the emotions that guide its stories latch more decisively onto their proper objects, so that the album is less tormented by confusion and crippling self-doubt.
Sprinter opener “Strange Hellos” is like “Honey” on steroids and a lot of self-confidence. It’s a furious bulldozer of a song, and one feels a blip of pity for “Heather,” a toxic companion who dares stand in its way. “Heather, I’m sorry that your mother, diseased in the brain, cannot recall your name,” offers Scott by way of sympathy in the opening lines. It's a gut-punch of an opening lie that turns out to be even darker than it seems. Scott continues by stating that Heather’s circumstances, however painful, don’t excuse the pain she’s inflicted on others in turn. “I’ve dreamt that I forgave, that only comes in waves, I hate you all the same,” comes Scott’s venom-dripping snarl. The drums kick in, the amps turn up, the guitars bear down with teeth. Dear Heather, I don't know if you're real, but I think you should run.
Running, of course, is an important image for Scott — the album’s called Sprinter, after all. It’s filled with stories about the liberating potential of running: away from home, from history, from relationships, from one’s self. Scott’s not interested in a simplistic rendering. In Sprinter’s songs, those who run may save and preserve themselves (“New Skin”), but they do this at great cost. Scott incisively poses tough questions about the possibilities of being a “sprinter”: Is it truly possible? Who has the luxury of being able to leave, and who does not? What is the price of freedom? Who has to get hurt so we can stop hurting? (“Son, You Are No Island” is particularly caught up with this question.) And, perhaps most devastatingly: When do you stop running?
Even the most emotionally legible songs on Sprinter involve some crucial ambivalence. The singer of “Strange Hellos” hates Heather, but “love[s her] all the same.” On the title track, Scott discusses her troubled Southern Baptist upbringing and self-critically admits that her ability to extricate herself actually owes a lot to the very thing she was trying to escape: “There’s freedom to, / and freedom from, / and freedom to run from everyone. / Well, what I did / is what is done, / the Baptist in me chose to run. / But if there’s still time / to choose the sun, / I’ll choose the sun. / …I’ll run it back to everyone.”
Meanwhile, the lovely “Ferris Wheel” confesses a vision that is cyclical rather than linear, constant rather than conclusive. On the heartrending, eight-minute a cappella finale “The Exchange”, time loops back around in several ways. Scott frets about morality as she retells some of the story of Torres’ “Moon & Back,” itself partially the story of her adoption, while also revisiting the aquatic and suicidal imagery of her debut’s closer “Waterfall”. The song itself is an act of trying to return to a bygone time, and ultimately a mournful acknowledgment of the futility this involves: “Mother, Father, I’m underwater, and I don’t think you can pull me out.”
Scott’s voice is exquisite and massive. A bold, round, forceful thing that at its most demure sounds like a controlled howl. At its most explosive it seems like it might fry the amps. It’s a commanding voice, one that makes you sit up straight and pay close attention. Alongside Eleanor Friedberger, Sadie Dupuis, and Andrew Savage, Scott is one of the best lyricists working in rock right now. One of the few penning nuanced and challenging words worth poring over in their own right. Between her writing and her singing, it’s clear that no matter whoever else might be involved in Torres at a given moment – Sprinter was produced by PJ Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis and features Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley in its backing band – the show is really all about Scott. The music exists in a supportive or illustrative capacity.
On “Strange Hellos”, the stadium-sized guitar maelstrom backs up the rancor of the lyrics. (Though Scott’s caterwaul could probably do the job alone.) As such, Sprinter — which mixes downbeat country, 1990s alt-rock, mild electronics, and an ocean of reverb — can be less sonically cohesive than it is narratively or thematically. Each song works on its own terms, but many of the songs don’t seem to share terms. “Cowboy Guilt” is a serviceable electropop song, but it integrates only tentatively with the songs sequenced before and after it.
In the end, these songs are about making the most of Scott’s voice and lyrics. As the sparse closing track "The Exchange" proves, a backing band, a professional producer, and a studio’s worth of resources are luxuries Torres can make use of, but they’re not necessary utilities. The only resource Mackenzie Scott needs to make a beautiful song and tell a cathartic story is herself. B+