Torres is probably the artist NPR music is most passionately rooting for right now. Although she is still playing small stages, they spent about 10 minutes of the 2015 year in review raving about her music, and every time they mention her one of their commentators will rave about how she is going to be really big, really soon.
I don’t quite believe that Mackenzie Scott, the Nashville native who records under the name of Torres, will ever be a household name. While her sophomore album Sprinter blends intense confessions, emotional immediacy, and sharp lyrics in a way reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’ wildly popular Illinois, her sound is less immediately accessible and legible than Sufjan’s. Her voice can be tender and welcoming, but rather than creating simply beautiful song progressions, she uses her calm to create both forbidding and respite from the crashing power of her voice and guitars.
The best way to visualize Torres’ music is to picture an ocean storm. As we, the listeners, attempt to sail through, we are buffeted by the waves of Torres’ emotion and gales that whip images of her childhood, faith, family, guilt, and longing. Each element hits powerfully, washing suddenly into our consciousness like a splash in the face before mixing with all of the rest. Scott’s voice, like a storm, is a force to be reckoned with, salty and pressurized. However, she stands out by finding plenty of places to bring us into the eye of the storm, to suddenly offer refuge, as she dials in luxuriously on a specific memory or a particularly affecting thought.
I am very rarely a fan of straight rock music in the style that Torres plays, but this is mostly due to my own inexperience and impatience with dissonance. Torres, though she embraces minor chord mashing and overflowing noise, balances all of this with her embrace of silence. The record’s cover splits Torres’ body in two, one clear and brightly lit, and another dark and coursing with ripples of dark energy. It is a visual clue to the dichotomies of the album: bright and dark, tender and harsh, human and omniscient (Torres takes on the voice of God for “Son you are no Island”).
The album’s title, “Sprinter” is appropriate. This record will take you on a journey.
The cover art features Torres adopting a piercing, confident stare straight forward. While she is presented vulnerably, in a single black tank top and with wet or matted hair, this record finds Torres boldly facing the harsh realities and difficult questions of her own life and upbringing. Torres uses the songs on this record to work through woundedness, loss, and fear with ever-present strength and candor. On the title track “Sprinter” Scott sings about her childhood as a Sprinter and her grappling with her Southern Baptist upbringing and the subsequent challenges to her faith. She vacillates between rage and depression, but it is not a frustrated or self-defeating mood. Instead, she her rage is layered on until it becomes armor, and her sadness works as a vehicle for coming to terms with her past.
If you are interested in songwriting that blends silence and noise, rage and introspection, and tenderness with all the power of a blistering storm, you owe it to yourself to give Torres a listen.
How to Listen:
Not a Rock fan? Start with “Cowboy Guilt”, the brightest spot on the album. Torres takes a moment to recollect another memory from her past, this one more hopeful than most. She reflects on a night spent in Ft. Worth Texas, and details the immediate connection that can form between two humans with similar minds. This meeting with the “King of Ft. Worth Texas” is one of those moments that means more to her than it should, and replays in her mind even years afterwards.
If you are already a fan of heavier rock music, I highly recommend that you just listen to the record in the order Torres arranged it. This is one of my favorite “through listen” records, and I’ll play it once on most long car trips. There is a great diversity and pace throughout the songs, and the opener, Strange Hellos, offers a clear and powerful introduction to Torres’ silence/noise relationship.
The Masterpiece: New Skin/Breaking Through
I have a deep love for songs that transition perfectly into new songs. Even through I often listen through full albums and keep an lookout for them, few songs transition as fully and bombastically as “New Skin/Breaking Through” does.
The song opens with a pretty guitar intro, with a steady kick-drum propelling the melody as Mackezie Scott’s voice hums and growls around it. New Skin’s lyrics center around the line:
“Lay off me, would you?
I’m just trying to take this new skin for a spin.”
Torres has a way to make simple couplets evoke an entire relationship, history included. In remarkably few words, she communicates all she needs to about the struggle to escape another’s criticisms and expectations, and the beginning of recreating herself as she wraps herself in this new skin.
The effect repeats even more powerfully when Scott sings,
“I am a tired woman.
In January I will just be twenty three”
Torres delivers the phrase with a voice that turns it a thousand ways, and recalls a thousand frustrations and burdens carried from her past. It reads as an admission of her suffering, but it is delivered as an accusation. Rather than saying “what has become of me” Torres seems to shout, “Look what you’ve done to me!” before indulging in the entirety of “Breaking Through”, a song so full of controlled catharsis that even a rock skeptic like me can fall in love.