I’ve listened to Natalie Prass more times in the past two weeks than I’ve listened to most albums released in the past two years. It’s a beautiful and rich piece of music, one that is going to catch the ears of many unsuspecting listeners over the next several months. It’s the kind of record that has the potential to change the common perception of the “Nashville singer-songwriter” and it’s the kind of record that will be topping many year-end lists. It’s an album that caused me endless stress because it’s so good that I wasn’t sure that I would be able to properly do it justice with a simple review, but I tried anyway.
One of the more impressive talents that Music City has cultivated in recent years, Natalie Prass spent much of last year as a crucial member of Jenny Lewis’s band before teaming up with Matthew E. White’s Spacebomb Records for her first full-length as a solo artist. It’s in this ideal pairing of visionary producer and untapped raw talent that Natalie Prass derives much of its power, the under-appreciated White providing lush (and occasionally idiosyncratic) arrangements to accompany Prass’s delicate (and sometimes biting) lyrics.
The album begins with a quick gasp, a moment of human vulnerability that foreshadows many more to come. In fact, “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” is one of the more comprehensive opening tracks I’ve heard in some time. Not only does it set the tone for what the rest of the record will sound like, but it also establishes what it will feel like. Natalie Prass would be much more emotionally exhausting if it didn’t sound so pristine, as it frequently finds our protagonist battling to control her self-doubt long enough to try to make some sense out of modern love. “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” is admittedly autobiographical, and it’s similarly hard to shake the feeling that every word that pours out of Prass on wax wasn’t also originally scribbled into a personal diary.
The confessional nature of Prass’s lyrics turn her into a relatable figure for anyone that has ever harbored strong feelings toward another human being. While romantic ambivalence has long been fertile ground for most singer-songwriters, Prass tackles the subject dynamically. On “Bird of Prey”, she refers to the song’s subject as having a “heart like a knife” before reassuring them on the closing coda that she “never said [she] didn’t” want them pursuing her anyways. “Your Fool” finds Prass jilted by a lover (possibly by the titular homewrecker of the slow-burning “Christy”) and wanting out, only to resign herself to the fact that she might be doomed to continue this dance, against her better judgment. Her dilemma is revisited on the penultimate track “Reprise”, a wink at the structure of ‘60s soul albums, which often found singers repeating the lyrics of a previous song with a reworked arrangement. It’s just one of the many clever maneuvers that Natalie Prass has in its repertoire.
The centerpiece of the record, “Why Don’t You Believe In Me” (notice the doubt-alluding lack of a question mark) is the type of song that would be heading off a compilation of Motown’s greatest hits had it not been constructed in 2014. This is where Matthew E. White shows his importance as Prass’s collaborator, crafting a retro sound that manages to come from a varying set of influences, depending on the song. “Why Don’t You Believe In Me” takes a Diana Ross-inspired vocal turn and marries it to a prominently jazzy piano and an uplifting brass section. “Violently” takes a typical torch song and sends it into the stratosphere by acknowledging the tension of Prass’s desires (“I’ve had enough of talking politely”) and then mirroring them with subtle instrumentation that perks and settles as it is willed by the feelings being expressed.
“Never Over You” wears its Nashville influences on its sleeve, with a hushed pedal steel guitar playing a major role. It’s what I would consider to be the album’s weakest point, as I think that Prass’s strength lies in her ability to sidestep the tropes of the Music City sound rather than in her ability to succumb to them. And if there’s ever been a song that represents the absolute antithesis of the expected sound of a Nashville singer-songwriter, it’s probably the time-stopping closer “It Is You.” In an alternate universe, the strings and flute on this song would be soundtracking the theme song to a classic animated Disney film. Similarly, Prass channels a playful innocence with a vocal performance that flits between sardonic observation and devastating longing, sometimes even in the same line (“glass of wine at my desk, when you’re not around”). It’s a hell of an ending song, tantalizing the listener to hit the repeat button on the entire album just to recapture the feeling of catharsis that has been fully realized by the time “It Is You” softly draws the curtains closed.
While I do foresee some music critics pigeonholing the album as simple “retro revivalism” and using it as an exhibit to build an ongoing case against the repurposing of sounds from the past, much of the pre-release discourse around Natalie Prass has been wildly positive. The final product justifies the expectations and then some, placing Prass in a bracket far removed from any comparable modern acts, if there are any to speak of in the first place. Natalie Prass is bold, but it’s easy to digest and it’s the kind of album that we would still be hearing to this day had it been released at the height of soul music’s domination of the popular music charts. The kind of impact that it will have in 2015 is something that we’ll have to wait to observe, but if anything, we should just be happy that Natalie Prass exists for us to hear.
– Kevin B.