When all kinds of artists are getting labeled as “pop”, it’s easy to forget that “pop” is just the shorthand for “popular music”, a genre that changes with the seasons and preferences of an ever-fickle population. So what about those acts that are working with the sounds and textures that we could easily imagine hearing on the Hot 100 but aren’t getting there? The acts with one million streams of a song instead of tens of millions of streams? Are they still “popular”? Are they still the Cool Kids in Class? Or should we name this new slice of the musical world something else, like “striver-pop”?
Lissie has the makings of a Sia or a Lana Del Rey, but her most streamed track on Spotify by far, at just over 18 million streams, is a Fleetwood Mac cover. She’s a career pop songwriter, slogging through the motions of slinging a song here or there at the industry to get it attached to some movie or TV show or grabbing some cash from laying down featuring-vocals in more well-known artists’ songs. It’s not glory, but it’s a living.
This is why, I’d imagine, her first two albums sound a bit like pop grab-bags. A smattering of this style, a touch of this other style, no real coherence or definitive sound – Just a demo reel for an aspiring actor. Her voice, however, breaks through. A smoky low-end that’s like a Stevie Nicks who never burned out her nasal passages with coke, but with a much higher reach that makes for a blistering chorus, the cornerstone of today’s big venue songs. She’s a huge talent and writes her own songs. Could there be more for Lissie? Her most recent two releases say “YES…. but also maybe not?”
In 2016, Lissie released an album that broke her earlier formula. Titled My Wild West, this collection housed twelve tracks that belonged together and built off of each other in a story-teller’s style; indeed, even tacking the “My” in front of the album’s name shows much more of a sense of ownership than Lissie’s past work. Forgive my overwhelming albums-are-better-than-singles bias, but it worked wonders.
Tinged throughout with earth-toned Western vibes, from the guitar twangs to a drop-in by a horn section in “Hero”, the album centers around a theme, both musical and lyrical, that feels personal: the narrator, seduced by the wonders of California, begins to lose herself in the wilds of Western America, and the tracks chart her rises and falls, from the precarious thrill of it all (“Wild West”) through her feelings of isolation (“Stay”) and depression (“Shroud” with its haunting and desperate chorus of “I feel like I have lost my mind”) all the way to redemption and departure (“Go for a Walk” and “Ojai”). Even the feminist anthem (“Daughters”) stuck in the middle of the album serves the storyline, as if the narrator is clawing herself out of her own pit, the tone fearsome, ferocious, and dire. Overall, the album feels personal because it *was* personal. This is the story of Elisabeth Corrin Maurus (or Lissie, if you prefer her somewhat less Google-able stage name) leaving her old home to the north of Los Angeles in Ojai, CA, a trip that would eventually take her to a farm in Iowa where she would record her new album, Castles.
For the record, I don’t think Iowa is responsible for any differences between the Lissie of 2016 and the Lissie of 2018.
Castles is, in a way, a return to “form”. You can see in the cover artwork that this is going to be a less personal affair. Gone is the face of Elisabeth Maurus, replaced with an ambiguous figure underwater – an image that you’re not going to find referenced in an album called Castles, unless maybe that person is diving into a moat. The songs come in two basic flavors: love songs and break-up songs, both coated in enough of a polished veneer that they could easily fit in as the end credits track of any given movie, without too many lyrical details getting in the way.
That’s not to say these songs aren’t good. In fact, the more I listened, the harder it was to critique. These are strategically designed earworms, and they absolutely will get into your brain if you give them the chance. The title track digs for love in Arthurian legend and involves the repeated refrain of just the word “Castles” again and again, and yet it feels like much more than the sum of its words. “Love Blows” begins with breathy gravitas, going on about the helplessness of love addiction, until it culminates in the pseudo-punch line of its title, but it still manages to transcend the genre of Country-Clever Joke Songs.
But each song seems to be doing battle with the track that follows it. Just before the downer of “Love Blows”, we get the beautiful and celebratory “Somewhere” with its magical thinking, like “Somewhere we are together / Somewhere in the stars / Imagine we are together in a world that isn’t ours”. You have to dig deep into the lyrics of “Somewhere” to find the bridge that says “Why can’t this be the one? Where you and I met and stayed in love?” But the connection between the two songs is a bit fraught, and it can cause some of emotional whiplash for the casual listener. The same thing happens when “Best Days” proclaims “Cause the best days of our life are coming for us”, which revs on into “Feels Good” with its slightly less optimistic “You just do what feels good ’til it doesn’t” and “You’ll be the death of me.” What happened to those best days? I guess they were shorter lived than expected…
Maybe a lyrical deep-dive would reveal some kind of through-line that pulls this collection together as well, but the overall deep-blue electro-vibes of the album sometimes hamper the songs, like in the aforementioned “Best Days”, which wants to be a plucky country-pop tune (It even mentions a pick-up truck; need I say more?) gets swept away in synths and washes, for better or worse. The overall effect is to draw out the more Lana Del Rey-tones in Lissie’s voice and distance her from perhaps the less commercial sounds of My Wild West, which were, none-the-less, seemingly more authentic.
That’s how it goes, though, in Pop World. If you’re not the leader of the Cool Kid Pack, you end up having to reinvent yourself to fit in with the clique. Lissie has been quoted as saying “I’d almost rather have a long career that grows slowly than one big explosion of fame and success.” To which my incredibly biased self responds, “Stick to writing albums.” That’s the stuff legendary careers are made of.
My Wild West Rating: 78/100
Castles Rating: 70/100
Key Tracks for My Wild West:
Sun Keeps Risin’
Key Tracks for Castles:
For the Lovers:
Blood & Muscle
For the Haters:
What Am I Gonna Do
David C. Casey