In 2013, Mackenzie Scott (who performs under the name “Torres”) came bursting out the gates with a debut that was intimate, honest, and powerful. Over sparse production and reverberated guitars, she displayed her vocal prowess, moving from hushed whispers to impassioned, operatic swells of aggravation. Each track dealt with emotional stories of struggle and realization, but for the most part, they provided glimmers of hope when in their most dire state.
In 2015 Torres has returned with her sophomore effort The Sprinter and left all any remnants of hope behind. Unlike the message of her first album, the nine songs on The Sprinter all provide the same solution: just runaway. Whether it be past friendships, broken relationships, or religion, each song explores the idea that cutting ties is better than dwelling on the past. This is best seen on the title track where the narrator decides to abandon their Baptist upbringing when the hypocrisy of their pastor is revealed (he’s arrested for pornography, if you really need to know). The chorus speaks the universal theme of the album: “There’s freedom to/ and freedom from/ and freedom to run.”
Scott’s one time message of hope isn’t the only thing that has changed. The production on The Sprinter is more sinister, fuller, and more intricate then her more straightforward debut. It’s no coincidence that PJ Harvey producer Rob Ellis is at the helm because Scott, whose first album resembled that of a singer/songwriter, has taken on an emotional heft and artistic devotion that hearkens back to the 90s work of Harvey. Fellow PJ Harvey band mate Ian Oliver gives each track a brooding backbone reminiscent of To Bring My Love, Ellis provides the piercing, heartbeat rhythms, and Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley adds the disorienting guitars that reflect the same uncertainty discussed in the lyrics. Anyone looking for uplifting music can move themselves along – this is dark music for dark times.
As I discussed earlier this year with the work of Sufjan Stevens, there’s a difficult line in Scott’s music between what is fictional and what is drawn from her own real life experiences. In interviews she’s described herself as a storyteller, but within each track, I feel there are autobiographical glimpses provided. “Son, You Are No Island” may be told from the perspective of an omnipresent God, but the accusatory, biting commentary on the “boy” feels like it’s being drawn from a real life betrayal by a boy who is “not a man yet.” The speaker on “Sprinter” may refer to himself as “a better man,” but Scott’s well-documented struggles with her Baptist upbringing are similar to the story told in the song (and, yes, she was a sprinter in high school). And the story of an adopted child in “The Exchange” is an obvious call back to Scott’s “Moon & Back,” a song that told the story of her adoption from the perspective of the mother who gave her up. “The Exchange” is the highlight of the album with Scott taking the listener on an emotional tour de force, using the motif of a basement flood to capture the feelings of fear and loss.
Despite the autobiographical hints, The Sprinter as a whole is a series of stories told from varying perspectives. In the liner notes Scott thanks famous authors, including Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath, Ray Bradbury, Joan Didion, and J.D. Salinger, and her affinity for constructing tales like these literary legends is apparent in her lyrics. “Strange Hellos” could easily be about Holden Caulfield from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. While Caulfield constantly bemoans the phony interactions he faces in the novel, Scott’s character admits “Strange hellos are not my bag/ better never having had/I was all for being real.” The lyrics from “The Harshest Light” could be mistaken for a Sylvia Plath poem (“All alone with my brain,/ just a misguided woman”), and the Texan portrayed in “Cowboy Guilt” could be a character drawn from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. Scott’s first album had some excellent lyrics, but it’s obvious that her reading habits have only heightened her ability to create captivating stories that touch upon universal themes.
The biggest growth of all for Scott though would have to be her voice. The once innocent soprano now resonates with a trembling vitriol. She sings with a complex mix of emotions, warbling with sadness, growling with frustration, and shouting in defiance. I’ve seen her perform several times and every time I’m left with the hair on the back of my neck standing up as a result of her captivating voice. On The Sprinter, she has bridged the gap between her lyrics and her vocals, resulting in a riveting, emotive creation that begs the attention of your ears, your mind, and your heart.