Regina Spektor's new album, number six if you're counting at home, is something of a low key masterpiece but it doesn't play as one because it doesn't feel all as a part, the album seems to be flinging itself without a governing concept behind it. That isn't true of Regina's inferior Far from 2009. Far doesn't peak as high and it doesn't sound as good, but from "Blue Vein" to "Laughing With", there was a sense of Far being about something bigger than its size. And with ELO's Jeff Lynn at the controls on the former, there was a bigness to the music.
All of that is gone on What We Saw From the Cheapseats, with the hip of Dr. Dre buddy Mike Elizondo, Spektor reworks her music in her own image again. This is the follow up to her 2006 breakthrough Begin To Hope, if begin To Hope hadn't broken through. It is no more but certainly no less than a collection of mostly excellent songs by a first class singer-songwriter with Gypsy quirks, Jewish folk thoughts, and Tin Pan Alley provocations. Regina arrived from Russia at the age of nine, over there she was a piano prodigy, over here she was no slouch either. But she switched direction and become an antifolk pianist who used her backstory, for front playing on a theme. Like Vladimer Nabakov before, she is a Russian who became an American, and allows that duality to rule her.
So what you get on WWSFTCS is two of the best song Regina has ever written, maybe three, some quirky shit that works pretty well, a reworking of an oldie a song with her husband and two covers in their original Russian, and two pieces of mixed message nostalgia. The album starts strong, wobbles badly in the middle, and doesn't reach the earlier heights at the end. It is actually a little weird, the first seven songs are flat out magical, the next seven songs fall about all over the place. Her worst political song by a long shot, "Ballad Of A Politician", is followed by the just plain nasty "Open". In the middle of the album, it's like you're sinking in quicksand, it's like watching a horror movie: yeah, it's scary bit to what end? Sure, the Nazis (?) in "Ink Stain" might be hidden from sight, it might be unclear precisely how their sins are being pursued, but "Politicians" sounds too generic to matter. It's like somebody jumping out a wardrobe and saying boo.
In contrast, "Small Town Moon" -a song which leads me to think you would be better off not reading too much bio in her words, finds the joy in leaving things behind, it is an instantaneous nostalgia. "Don't Leave me (Ne Quitte Pas)" is also nostalgia, and since iot was written around the turn of the century, which would have made Regina around 20 years old, the nostalgia is doubled up: for the girl who wrote it remembering the girl who arrived from the USSR and lived in the Bronx. Indeed, has there ever been a songwriter less willing to allow us to read into her words where the truth of her life as lived exists. She is the LEAST REVEALING of women.
This is followed by "Firewood" and two songs later "How". "Firewood" has the better metaphor, "How" is the better song. "How" is so straightforward it is a little off putting for some people: it could be anybody. Or at least, anybody who could write the best ballad of the year. "Firewood" cuts the difference and it is almost the equal. The classical break in the middle of "Firewood" moves it to just another level. That's what Regina does on these two songs, she changes the game from quirk to beatitude.
It fits together uncomfortably and when I think of the album as a whole it seems to be very good not great but when I concentrate on specific moments in the whole it feels like the album of year.