Lesbian singer/songwriter Torres (aka Mackenzie Scott) was a musical theater kid, and Broadway left a mark on her style, although she doesn’t sing showtunes. On her latest album, “Thirstier,” her songs dwell in a world of heightened emotions. Her voice keens above thickly distorted guitars. The album roars out of the gate with its first two songs, “Are You Sleepwalking?” and “Don’t Go Puttin Wishes in My Head.” Its crunch looks back to grunge and ‘90s indie rock, but the production is carefully layered. With whining synthesizer and hand-claps, “Don’t Go Puttin’ Wishes in My Head” suggests the Killers.
Last year, Torres was touring Europe when the pandemic started shutting down everyday life. Abruptly, she had to cancel the tour and find a way back to the US at a time when transcontinental airline tickets were selling for as much as $20,000 dollars, hopping from Berlin to Amsterdam to Moscow before making it to New York. But as with her previous three albums, she traveled to the UK last fall to record “Thirstier” with co-producer Rob Ellis. (She and John Moses produced it with Ellis.)
The fact that Torres was blocked from reaching a live audience with her 2020 album “Silver Tongue” fed into the sound of “Thirstier.” Unlike many contemporary rock musicians, Torres does not make herself small. “Thirstier” packs a crunch that bridges the divide between indie and arena-rock. The lyrics aren’t always easy to make out. It also uses keyboard sounds out of a late ‘70s Blondie or Elvis Costello song. “Kiss the Corners” draws on ‘80s synthesizer and drum machine presets, taking them in a pensive direction, as she sings “you remain” for 30 seconds. The song stands out on the album by sticking with electronics.
In the “Thristier” video, Torres, spending the day at the beach, emerges from a fog of distorted colors and superimpositions to face the audience directly. “Don’t Go Puttin Wishes In My Head” received an aggressively down-to-earth visual glimpsing at the home life of Torres and her partner Jenna Gribbon. While she’s shown playing the guitar and even recording a demo at her computer, the clip spends far more time showing her making food with Gribbon. The video brings a loving, tender eye to her relationship, avoiding voyeurism and using editing and video effects playfully.
Torres grew up in a conservative Christian family in Macon, Georgia. Her earliest singing experiences took place at church. Her lyrics dabble with religious imagery but, in a pattern common to queer musicians, fudge the line between romantic partners and God. “Thirstier” seems address to her lover, but the opening line “you want someone to worship you” has spiritual undertones as well. The song returns to this motif, mixing the carnal (“baby, keep your hands all over me”) with further hints of the divine (“you get hot when I show you just how devout I am.”) “Keep the Devil Out” plays around with the cliché “everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die to get there.” “Hug From a Dinosaur” suggests a future where “time and money aren’t real and empathy is God.”
After several listens, “Thirstier” is a triumph of production more than songwriting. It has a meat-and-potatoes indie rock quality. Her first album for Merge Records, 2020’s “Silver Tongue” drew from influences as disparate as country and New Age music. The confidence of “Thirstier” fits much more clearly into genre lines. But rocking out serves as a fitting backdrop for a triumphant return from the pandemic’s isolation.
Torres |“Thirstier” | Merge Records | July 30th