Tightrope Walker by Rachael YamagataRelease date: March 31, 2017
Label: Frankenfish/Thirty Tigers Records
The first thing to note about Rachael Yamagata’s fourth solo album, Tightrope Walker, is the rich, slightly dark, but very embracing quality of its sound. Backed by members of Yo La Tengo and The Roots, she has made a record that feels intimate and warm even in its bleakest moments; of which there are quite a few. It’s also an album of paradoxes; there are unorthodox elements throughout, but the feel is familiar and even commercial,rather than experimental; it’s sparse and yet busy, like a series of desolate, bluesy Tom Waits ballads as covered by Bryan Ferry’s band (not meant as an insult) and a string quartet; the music is laidback but often tense, lush and frankly melodic, but littered with odd rumbles, squelches and bleeps; the songs are often – in fact nearly all – weary, but never resigned. Above all, it’s very pretty – especially compared to some of her more gruelling previous work but never too pretty, despite the accessibility of it all.
The opening track, ‘Tightrope Walker’ itself, is an exercise in the aforementioned laidback tension; the smooth, jazzy, languor of the delivery contrasting nicely with the song’s theme of single-minded focus. Taking for its starting point Philippe Petit’s for-the-hell-of-it tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974, the image of the fragile but indomitable lone figure and his determined battle against the elements and his own limitations quickly becomes a symbolic one (all the more so given the transience of the towers themselves), providing the strength at the core of an album which is, emotionally speaking, far more down than it is up. The song is a melodic, edgy delight and Yamagata’s voice is recorded brilliantly; close, seductive, with every nuance coming through clearly, but always gliding through the music, never dominating it.
A few tracks in, ‘Over’ is perhaps the most directly affecting song of the set, a brilliantly catchy, but ultimately desolate tale of lost love sung forlornly over rolling percussion and a moody electronic pulse. It’s the sort of thing that has no reason not to be a hit single, except that it’s possibly a bit too classy for the charts. The same is true of the actual single, ‘Let Me Be Your Girl’, a low-key, but again very catchy semi-ballad that’s perhaps slightly too similar in texture/tempo to its predecessor, although it adds some slightly queasy horns to the chorus for a slick AOR-ish feel that is just on the right side of bland, thanks to Yamagata’s perfectly judged vocal. Less ambiguously good (for AOR-phobes at least) is the surprisingly bleak trio of songs that follows; ‘I’m Going Back’, ‘Rainsong’ and the country-tinged ‘Black Sheep’, which plumb emotional depths, while retaining the essentially listenable, even radio-friendly sound of the album; this is sad music which consoles and comforts rather than devastating the listener. What it feels like the album is saying is the slightly double-edged message – you will get over your obstacles, in love, in life – but not because things get better necessarily, just because getting over things is what people do.
That last point is brought home by the album’s closing track, ‘Money Fame Thunder’, an explicit pep-talk addressed perhaps to the singer herself, that brings the album back to its central image of the tightrope walker, now trying to get back to earth. If one of the central feelings of the album is, as mentioned in the intro, a non-resigned weariness, its message is not so much a rousing ‘fight on’ as it is a soothing ‘this too will pass.’ Don’t let doubt or defeat stop you in your tracks – but by all means pause, look around, collect your thoughts and wallow in comforting melancholy for a little while – Rachael Yamagata has made a soundtrack for you.