Margaret Glaspy, Devotion ****
Caroline Rose, Superstar, ***1/2
Margaret Glaspy’s second album begins with a brief jolt of vocoder that recalls the statement-making opening to “Oh, What a World,” a highlight from Kacey Musgraves’ 2018 album Golden Hour. Musgraves’ synth-country blockbuster provided a template for how roots-based songwriters can strive for modern pop ambition without sacrificing songcraft.
Devotion, the latest from New York singer-songwriter Glaspy, is one of the most fully-formed efforts to come out in the wake of Golden Hour. Glaspy doesn’t tear down so much expand and build upon the warm Seventies folk-rock of her wonderful 2016 debut Emotions + Math, incorporating drum loops and processed vocals into an effortless mix of swooping indie-pop (“Without Him”), industrial noise (“What’s the Point”) and Ben Folds-piano sing-alongs (“Vicious”).
“Anybody with a pulse, or even half a heart, has a reason to be foaming at the mouth,” Glaspy sings on “Angry Again, a forceful Fifties-style torch ballad about being paralyzed by one’s emotions (in this case, outrage). That raw track feels like an aberration from Glaspy, who usually writes with uncommon emotional dexterity and precision. When Glaspy asks, “who’s the clown, and who’s the savior?” on the bouncy “Stay With Me,” the song’s refrain pokes fun at the idea that any such categorization could ever be so black and white: “Me/You/Me/You/Me/You.”
Like Glaspy, singer-songwriter Caroline Rose began her career as a guitar-strumming troubadour with her earliest self-serious offerings, 2013’s America Religious and 2014’s I Will Not Be Afraid. But on her new album, Superstar, out earlier this month, Rose triples down on the synth-filled irony she introduced on her stunning 2018 breakthrough Loner.
Superstar is an insular work, the product of several years of obsessive self-producing and home recording from Rose, and as such, it establishes the songwriter as a commanding auteur. The album plays out as loosely-tied together concept record about daydream fantasies, freaky S&M, post-breakup new beginnings. “My love is a bad idea,” she sings in “Freak Like Me,” offering up a compelling thesis statement for her new work.
But storytelling is hardly the main attraction this time around. Rose’s ace narratives (see 2018’s “Getting to Me”) occasionally take a backseat to her wash of high-pitched keyboards, but when she stumbles upon her finest grooves, like she does on the Prince-inspired “Feel the Way I Want,” the results are irresistible. As she sings on the album’s opening track, “I feel as though I need a change.”
(Editor’s Note: One of the song’s mentioned in this review, Margaret Glaspy’s “Angry Again,” appeared on early advance copies of the album sent to reviewers but did not end up on the finished version of the album.)