Album Review: Elle King, ‘Love Stuff’
Back in 2012, Elle King made her debut with her eponymous EP, and she did so without reservation or mincing her words – something that’s exemplified on the EP’s tongue-in-cheek single, “Good to Be a Man.” King continues that clear path forward with her inaugural full-length, Love Stuff, wherein she mixes her crackling, powerful twang with greasy rock – and there’s no shortage of the cutting snark that was previously established on her EP.
King’s newly minted LP is a Pistol Annies' Hell on Heels-esque mission statement – “Well, I could’ve sworn I told you I was mean,” sings King, growling the titular lyrics of “I Told You I Was Mean” – with a delivery that’s more akin to Janis Joplin’s grit and rasp.
It’s with equal ferocity that the Ohio-hailing singer-songwriter serves up Love Stuff’s opening salvo, “Where the Devil Don’t Go,” a bluesy romper that has King declaring, “Never got no good / Doing what I’m told.” She continues to preach a message of uninhibited recklessness on “Last Damn Night,” opening with a distinctly Black Keys-sounding intro, which comes as no surprise considering the fellow Ohioan duo’s Patrick Carney supplied the drums, while producer Mark Ronson delivers the track’s swampy guitars.
While King’s powerhouse command will continue to draw the Joplin comparisons, along with Amy Winehouse – a prime example of which is the soulful swagger heard on “Under the Influence” – the now Brooklyn-based singer carves her own niche among her predecessors with her brand of fearlessness.
King’s boldness is not merely a testament to the fact she spends the better part of 12 tracks establishing a brazen image and steely vocals that keep both her subject matter and listeners at an arm’s length. It can also be attributed to the fact she just as quickly dismantles those expectations with more inward-looking, exposed songs, too.
Just as King opens her debut with the fierce, one-two punch of “Where the Devil Don’t Go” and album single, “Exs & Ohs,” she conversely closes the LP at the other end of the spectrum. Though Love Stuff may be sarcastic in title, King earnestly addresses that “stuff” on the final two tracks, “Make You Smile” -- which is almost demure, with its gently plucked acoustic guitar that would be more readily found in a coffeehouse – and “See You Again.” Here, she abandons the fortress that the sheer strength of her vocals can create and instead takes a more confessional approach, even channeling Ryan Adams circa Heartbreaker. King allows for similar interludes with mid-album tracks, “Kocaine Karolina” and “Songs of Sorrow,” for which she adopts a banjo and lilting twang.
It’s these seemingly at odds moments that make Love Stuff worth its salt. On “America’s Sweetheart,” King challenges listeners, singing, “What do you want from me / I’m not America’s sweetheart.” That sentiment is at the very crux of the album: King spends Love Stuff embracing her contradictions and complexity as an artist – something that ultimately makes for a much more interesting listen.