Kimbra — Vows

Warner |

There’s more to this pastel-noir kitsch-pop debut than meets the eye
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In my Superlative Albums I Wrote About in 2018 list, Vows was awarded the Copernicus Qwark Charming Strangelet for Strangeness and Charm

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It’s a raucous night down in this secret little hideaway.

Golden chandeliers shine on silvered platters of indescribably scrumptious delights, threading effortlessly between the patrons of this establishment as if on wheels. The bustling waiters who bear these treats are invisible, naturally, in anonymous elegant white.

Availing themselves of these provisions are scores of heads, slicked back or down or up, dripping with gemstones, crowned with feathers, laughing, dancing, living, throwing back pints of simmering pink, tumblers of bubbling topaz, snifters of fizzing green, bursting with cuts of juicy fruits and impractical bouquets of straws.

A curtain of burgundy velvet rises. A single spotlight swings down onto the stage. A figure is illuminated, a figure of stunning turquoise, nails and curls lacquered in black. A hush settles as every head turns. She steps up to the microphone and, with a single careless gesture of a finger, signals the bandmaster.

The crowd holds their breath. The chanteuse of this pastel speakeasy is ready to perform.

There is a photogenic variety of quirk that is palatable to a wide audience in the way that more experimental music cannot be. In the frigid wastes of Scandinavia burn restless spirits pushing relentlessly at the boundaries of art, who could never feature in shoe ads or headline the Superbowl — a Jenny Hval wreathed in auroras and drenched in freshly-squeezed blood, or perhaps a regal Björk extending a careless hand to swivel around the stars in the night sky. But we can’t all sing about explicit vampire sex or spin extended metaphors about our own vertebrae. Regina Spektor pens gut-busting but relatable tales of love and loss, while Lorde’s chiaroscuro kintsugi paean to youth and partying won me over immediately. And like them, there’s more to Kimbra than meets the eye.

Not that what meets the eye is in any way offputting or disengaging; quite the opposite. Vows was the album saddled with the heavy dual task of making a coherent artist statement and following up ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’, that gargantuan slow burn from all the way back in 2011. (How has it been seven years already? It seems impossible to conceive of pop music pre-1989, and this was even earlier, in the primordial backwaters of pre-Red. Golly jeepers.) Happily, Vows is more than up to the task, presenting a sleekly layered set of attractive pop songs that nimbly threads the needle between variety and homogeneity. Kimbra displays an uncommon knack for crafting catchy, hook-laden melodies in a variety of scales and modes, delivered with gleeful vibrato and piercing high notes, decorated handsomely with arrays of handclaps and tambourines. Certainly, in the absence of bones and fluids and such, Vows goes down smoothly.

In a refreshingly confident step, Kimbra skips directly over saccharine honeymooning vagaries to sink her teeth into heavier fare. The album opens with ‘Settle Down’, whereon she relishes the future challenges of domesticity. Never have I heard such upbeat anticipation of raising a child. There is never a dull moment on Vows, from the swooning chorus of ‘Home’ to the shimmying beat of ‘Good Intent’ to the twinkling lights of ‘Two Way Street’ and even to the strangely uplifting speckles of ‘Limbo’.

A little bit wacky, not obnoxiously so: the guiding principle of the subgenre.

And Kimbra’s debut remains a clear point of influence in both directions along the wackiness continuum, shades of Vows apparent on both HAIM’s sunny cell-shading and the tottering artifice of Melanie Martinez. It’s unfortunate, then, that Kimbra chose to downplay her captivating quirk on her next two albums. 2014’s The Golden Echo boasts trap-slapper ‘Nineties Music’ as well as a number of acutely crimped electro-funk gems, but these are partitioned among some fairly forgettable filler. And April’s Primal Heart fares even worse, with little to recommend beyond the smoulder of ‘The Good War’ and the bizarre Kanye-lite bop ‘Top of the World’.

All the talk of honesty and genuineness and getting in touch with ‘the real Kimbra’ and other empty platitudes in the leadup to Primal Heart recall superstar Katy Perry and her recent ‘purposeful pop’ flop Witness (which I dissected and biopsied last year). Both have followed the same trajectory, post-breakout, shying away from their strengths in order to do what they were already doing, but less effectively.

Nothing from these later offerings holds a candle to Vows’ effortless standouts: the neo-Motown groove of ‘Cameo Lover’ or the dusky loops of ‘Plain Gold Ring’. Nor jazz-banger 'Come Into My Head'.

A choreographed brass section blasts a fishhook riff, shaking dust from the ceiling. A few glasses shatter on the floor, forgotten by their shocked custodians. The chanteuse is not reclining on the crimson piano, nor is she stepping into the crowd brandishing a boa. She tears off the bottom of her dress and rips the mic from its stand, transforming from demure Kate Bush into grinning Kurt Cobain.

In just a moment she’s going to unleash a mighty scream. For now, someone is shredding on a sequined keytar.