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Bertie Blackman 'Pope Innocent X'

Bertie Blackman
Pope Innocent X
(Mercury/Universal)

Tapping a deep well of inner conflict even as she thrives in – and practically bounces off the walls of – the studio setting, Bertie Blackman proves all too ambitious on album four, the long-time-coming follow-up to 2009’s critical and commercial breakthrough Secrets and Lies. It’s a madcap listen, reeling with production quirks and clearing out a cathedral-like scale of height and depth that should be familiar to anyone who knows the CV of producer Francois Tetaz (Gotye, Kimbra, Architecture in Helsinki). Working closely with Tetaz, including co-writing the songs, Blackman has made what feels like an especially dark fairy tale sprung to vivid and violent life.

She has called the vibe “high fantasy”, which certainly fits. Recalling both Warren Zevon’s ‘Werewolves of London’ and classic vampire lore (“I’ll invite you in”), ‘Growl Howl’ could soundtrack one of the late Angela Carter’s oversaturated, revisionist fairy tales. Second single ‘Boy’ seems to evoke Pinocchio in its plea for fitting in, and Blackman is haunted by demons as well as the spectre of her unreliable father – painter Charles Blackman – amid the bass-y undercurrents of ‘Shadow Chasers’. Named for a frightening Francis Bacon piece, Pope Innocent X turns Blackman’s personal issues into a nightmare.

That said, it moves gracefully and quickly. It doesn’t get bogged down in its dour reflection, instead using it for fuel to blaze through hall-of-mirrors pop. Heralded by the part girl-group, part cyborg-goth lead single ‘Mercy Killer’ – featuring the ubiquitous Kirin J Callinan on guitar – these songs are snappy and lean, cramming unruly themes into their rubbery form. This balance of accessibility and oddity is enough to summon Bat for Lashes and Kate Bush before her, especially in the way Blackman’s voice holds sway over some unreal plane of existence on ‘Accordion Boat’. But this record is also poppy enough to recall Cyndi Lauper, too. Instead of dragging her singing into despair, Blackman turns it into a kind of giddy release.

Granted, all the frills can make it hard to stay on her lyrics. Right from opener ‘Tremors’, our attention is drawn to the periphery by fleeting parts rendered on piano, saxophone and many more instruments. They’re inessential, but that’s the point: they’re fascinating colour added to punctuate all that space. At under two minutes and with pitch-shifted vocals pushing her into mannish caricature, ‘Thugs and Lost Boys’ is more an interlude for means of pure atmosphere than a song strong enough to stand on its own. But it’s the rare weak link here, while something like ‘Hide and Seek’ is more than able to reconcile its clean, breakout vocal turn with its sinister lyrical portent (“I know where you’re hiding/I’m coming to get you”).

While it’s hard to imagine just how such a studio-entwined album will take shape live, Pope Innocent X is a courageous act of catharsis that’s also weirdly fun.

Doug Wallen

 

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