When Mackenzie Scott released her self-titled debut album under the name Torres in early 2013, it appeared quietly with no fanfare, but it gained some pretty serious buzz from the music press. Two years later and on her second album Sprinter the twenty-four-year-old Macon, Georgia native is working with the likes of Robert Ellis, the longtime producer of indie rock icon PJ Harvey and Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley. This second album takes the blueprint of the first - bruised, searingly honest rock and roll - and adds new textures and bold experiments that make it an improvement in almost every way.
Aided by her collaborators, Scott has discarded the raw, brittle nature of her previous work and replaced it with roaring guitars and striking electronic sounds that signify a new and very becoming maturity. Those gargantuan guitars are not necessarily new - and nor is the way Scott moves so easily between her soft, rich alto and a window-rattling howl - but their rage is now more controlled, expertly directed into a torrent of vengeful anger and sorrow. Opening track “Strange Hellos” begins with Scott whispering over a barely-there guitar scratch “Heather I’m sorry that your mother / Diseased in the brain / Cannot recall your name … / … I hate you all the same.”
Sprinter is the sound of Torres kicking and screaming, but against what or whom? Against sexist structures that force her into the box of another “female singer songwriter,” when she has much more in common with Scott Walker than Tori Amos, for one, and also, it would seem, the Catholic church. The excellent title track makes explicit reference to the church, and how the song's narrator broke free of its oppressive clutches. In interviews preceding the release of the album, Scott has discussed the concept of confession, not only in religious terms, but also in the way songs written by women seem intrinsically “confessional” - inward looking rather than outward looking.
But Torres has her eye on you. Even when the guitars are quieter, her acid tongue is no less corrosive. On the drifting, ambient-textured “Son, You Are No Island,” she mercilessly cuts a man down to size, and on the glittering, dreamy “A Proper Polish Welcome” she brings out the complex eroticism in a tale of displacement while a snare drum imitates the sound of distant gunfire. On this record, Scott’s boldness and willingness to go to unusual places is one of her biggest assets.
Some songs are a little plain; for example, “No Skin” fails to follow up the energy of the storming album opener meaning that the the record gets off to a bit of a shaky start. The album’s best tracks, though, like the otherworldly pop of the surprisingly uplifting “Cowboy Guilt,” with its jagged guitar riff and over-compressed, hollow-sounding drums, and the heart-wrenching, eight-minute-long adoption tale “The Exchange” that closes the record do an excellent job of making up for the album’s few shortcomings.
With this record, Mackenzie Scott has found a way to be introspective without being self-indugent, spilling out the contents of her heart with direction and purpose. Even the soft, simple and unbearably sad love song "Ferris Wheel" demonstrates that she writes with the eye of a great storyteller. Each time she opens her mouth, you feel as if you’re learning more about her and what Torres represents; It helps that she is so fiercely uncompromising in her self expression. Sprinter is not a total success, but it’s still a damn good album, and definitely one that will grow and grow with repeat listens. It’s strange, self-righteous, a little daunting, maybe a bit frightening, and sometimes even jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
Sprinter is out digitally and on CD and vinyl on Friday May 8.