The buzzword on Marnie Stern's self-titled third album seems to be "introspective." Frankly, this descriptor hardly seems indicative of a sea change if we've been paying attention to her lyrics.
Sure, In Advance of the Broken Arm and her breakthrough sophomore effort, This Is It And I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, pack a mean sonic wallop. But her second album could have been retitled The Tao of Marnie. It was especially festooned with at-times profound statements and affirmations about the creative process and the human condition. Just because she pitched her nasal voice in a giddy upper register and her fingers were flying across the frets of her electric guitar didn't mean she wasn't doing some soul searching. Even if she didn't announce what the songs were about didn't mean she wasn't in them.
What I think the main difference is between her prior work and the new album is less reliance on creating a sense of immediacy. Previously, her music foregrounded indelible guitar riffs played loud and often executed with superhuman speed. The sound here is more meditative, with less emphasis placed on hooks instead of hypnotic passages that build as they repeat or are broken up by unexpected melody lines. The lyrics, though still introspective, are more clearly applicable to Stern's personal experiences. Much of this is attributed to the opening track. "For Ash" is a song dedicated to an ex-boyfriend who committed suicide and the process of writing it helped Stern out of a creative dead end.
This sense of loss, remembrance, and reflection informs much of the album's content, shifting Stern's ability to channel musical catharsis through her guitar playing. This is evident on songs like "Transparency is the New Mystery," "Risky Biz," "Gimme," "Cinco de Mayo," and especially the haunting closer "The Things You Notice." While Stern and drummer Zach Hill's playing is no less muscular, it possesses the control to vary tempo or decelerate while maintaining buoyancy and ramping up suspense.
But Stern's characteristic playfulness and prowess over a face-melting riff equally defines the album which bears her name. Songs like "Nothing Left," "Building a Body," "Her Confidence," and the pointedly titled "Female Guitar Players are the New Black" could easily slide in to the tracklists of her earlier releases.
However, that they weave seamlessly into this album suggests Stern's steady artistic progression. It also suggests that inward thought can yield some mighty external results. This album may not capture your full attention on first listen, but I'm confident it contains enough interesting ideas to invite many returns. As Stern continues to hone in and balance introspection with formidable instrumental performance, we may get the pleasure of discovering that they aren't disparate concepts. Here, they seem to be in service of one another.