By John Curley
New Jersey-based singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins has variously described her new album, Slow Phaser, as “dark desert disco,” “neon noir,” and “hi-def late-night pop.” The album is quite rich lyrically, and it plays like the soundtrack to a film that David Lynch has yet to make.
Slow Phaser, Atkins’ third album, was recorded with producer Tore Johansson at his studio in Sweden. (Johansson also produced Atkins’ stellar debut album, Neptune City.) In addition to Atkins, the musicians on Slow Phaser were Tore Johansson on bass, Lars Olaf-Johansson of The Cardigans on guitar, Martin Gjerstad on keyboards, and drummer Sam Bey. Atkins co-wrote some of the Slow Phaser tracks with drummer Jim Sclavunos of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Grinderman.
The album is a feast of musical styles. The opening track, “Who Killed The Moonlight?”, switches from a trebly rockabilly sound to a bass-driven ‘70s disco groove and then back again. The gorgeous and lush “It’s Only Chemistry” features a country sound driven by banjo and organ and includes a choir. (Atkins sings the questions and the choir provides the answers.) The radio-friendly “Girl You Look Amazing” has an upbeat dance sound but is a relatively dark song about a down-and-out party girl. “What Do You Know?” is a bouncy song driven by keyboards that turns ethereal later in the song with distant vocals backed by an organ. The final track, “Above As Below,” has a dreamy and evocative feel to it throughout.
Lyrically, the album is simply stunning in its exploration of the dark side of human existence. “Who Killed The Moonlight?”, a song about desire, states, “We shouldn’t have to say goodbye when the moon falls from the sky.” One of the questions posed in “It’s Only Chemistry” is “When will my pain start to help me see?” Atkins sums up the mood of “Girl You Look Amazing” with the lines “Life’s a pearl for the nowhere girl” and “If we got heartbeats to spend, I’m gonna spend my night cashing them in.” The overall theme of the album can be summed up in one lyric from the song “Cool People,” which is “I’m always naked in my mind, trying to reconcile with a towering dark side.” In “Red Ropes,” Atkins reveals her disappointment in her character’s lover with the line “I’ll always be a prize fighter, even up against the ropes/You’ll always be a liar, punch drunk on busted hopes.” On the outstanding “Gasoline Bride,” Atkins sings, “When I turn the corner, try to drown my demon side in the black water.” A song about extreme desperation, “The Worst Hangover” features the refrain “I’m dyin’” repeated over and over until it trails off in a death crawl at the end of the song. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the provocative track “Sin Song,” the only lyrics of which are “My god is a holy shit/My god is a son of a bitch.”
In the hands of a lesser artist, an exploration of dark thoughts and desperation would be a very tough listen indeed. But Atkins and her supremely talented crew of musicians make it a vibrant and worthwhile view of life’s sometimes unpleasant underbelly. Slow Phaser is unquestionably Atkins’ strongest album yet. There is not a weak track or filler among the 11 songs on the album.
After releasing her first two albums on established labels, Atkins has chosen to go the independent route with this release. She financed the album via the crowdfunding site Pledge Music and is releasing it on her own Oh’ Mercy! label. Slow Phaser comes out on February 4th.
Atkins will be touring North America in support of the album, starting with a show at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom on February 13th. Full tour dates can be found at http://nicoleatkins.com.