Whether we like to admit it or not, those of us too cool to listen to Celine Dion or Bette Midler have a hole to fill in our musical world. We need the kind of music that makes us marvel at its virtuosity while simultaneously causing us to feel as though we are the protagonists in a grand world of emotion. Joni Mitchell does this (or at least she did) with her dark-side-of-bohemia anthems, Fiona Apple with her brooding odes to the damage wrought by love. Regina Spektor completes this trifecta of moody female musicians—and adds a hefty dollop of dark humor. Spektor’s new album, Far, is a meditation on finding the human within the divine, full of mini-soundtracks to life’s most intense moments.
Far is Spektor’s fifth album, but only the third to be released on a major label. After emigrating from the USSR with her parents in 1989 (reluctant to leave behind Regina’s piano and her music teacher, they escaped only when it became necessary), Spektor went to Jewish day school in the Bronx. Earlier this year, the singer, (who has her own entry on the blog Stuff Jewish Young Adults Like) wrote an impassioned blog post in support of Israel, in which she wrote that although she is in many ways a liberal, she believes the media’s portrayal of Israel is heavily biased. “Many of us try to un-Jew ourselves all the time,” she wrote. “It comes from a mixture of fear, guilt of surviving while others didn’t, and embarrassment. We are the root of our and the World’s problems, it seems…The instinct that drives them is the same instinct that drove them to blend in, and then be very surprised when they were put in the ghetto, too.”
This defiance of the areligious conventions of hipsterdom, from which many of her fans hail, reflects her commitment to unironic honesty. Spektor seemingly has the ability to see into loneliest corners of people’s minds, and transform their shame, fear, and angst into song. She has said that for the most part she doesn’t write songs about her own life—rather, it’s clear she writes with generous compassion toward the lives of others.
Like many artists, Spektor’s sound has grown less edgy and more polished over the course of her last few albums. But what makes Spektor a little bit punk rock has never been her music. It’s more about the candor of her lyrics, and the tough stubbornness she seems to exert in rebutting the mundane drudgery of life. Spektor maintains something of the Russian-Jewish refusenik to her style. She sings of bodies and cramped physical spaces and oppressive philosophical ideas, but also of imagination and triumphant weirdness and spiritual escapism. The song “Machine” captures the imagination of someone steeped in Soviet ideas about the West (“Everything’s provided, consummate consumer”), but who nonetheless thinks of it wistfully, and takes comfort in the thought of a sort of Marxist deity “who lacks my organics/and who covets my defects.”
Spektor turns words into sounds, which then somehow become more meaningful than the words, as in the song “Eet,” in which she animates that title syllable with all the power of her wide-ranging vocal prowess. Just when it seems like she might veer into Betty Boop cuteness, she drops an octave and slips instead into soulful crooning. And where her heartbreaking piano playing and devastating lyrics might weigh down another musician, her songs are shot through with the breezy air of her seductive voice.
Far is full of idiosyncratic wisdom. In “Laughing With,” she sings: “No one’s laughing at God in the hospital/No one’s laughing at God in a war…But God can be funny/when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket or Santa Claus/God can be so hilarious.” “One More Time With Feeling” is a whistling-in-the-dark song about mortality masquerading as a life-affirming ditty. I defy anyone to listen to it without thinking of the death of someone they knew. And if no one you know has died, consider yourself warned.
The themes in Far emerge through characters, mostly male, that make the songs feel as though they are non-denominational gospels on the topic of life, or musical chapters in the lives of unheralded prophets. Although it comes in the middle, the track “Human of the Year” is the album’s raison d’etre, the tale of one Karl Projectorinski who finds his fear of a higher power assuaged by the revelation that its realm is earthly. “Why are you so scared you stand there shaking in your pew/The icons are whispering to you/They’re just old men like on the benches in the park/except their balding spots are glistening with gold,” sings Spektor. “Outside the cars are beeping out a song just in your honor/and though they do not know it, all mankind are now your brothers.” When she chants “Hallelujah” at the songs climax, it feels like the one thing she’s been getting at throughout the album, like she is finally giving in to an exultant impulse.
The clunky moments in some of the album’s lighter songs seem designed to keep them out of iPod commercials, which they might otherwise suit. The dolphin noises (seriously) she makes in “Folding Chair” are forgivable because they’re a reminder that the song is offering respite in the form of no-holds-barred silliness and childlike logic with lines like “I’ve got a perfect body ‘cause my eyelashes catch my sweat.”
In the album’s closer, “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” Spektor sings of a character who could easily be God himself: “He begins his quiet ascension…To a place that no religion/has found a path to, or a likeness.” Maybe not, but Spektor provides as viable a path as any to enlightenment.