Regina Spektor, ‘What We Saw From the Cheap Seats’ – Album Review
Regina Spektor writes fairy tales — both the Disney princess sweetness kind, as well as the Brothers Grimm witches and poisoned apples kind. Her songs are often both high and de-spirited, victorious and defeated — that with every mention of falling in love suggests a falling out, that every new birth begets a death. ‘What We Saw From the Cheapseats’ is wistful, wandering, and wondrous — a record that will be met by returning listeners like a new letter from an old friend.
Things have been good for our penpal since we last corresponded. Now 32, the Moscow-born singer-songwriter has made it in every measure of the phrase: from pressing gold and platinum-selling records to marrying well (to singer-songwriter Jack Dishell, who guests here), to penning songs for a new adaptation of ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ While the new album addresses her rise to fame and fortune, she returns to recurring themes.
The album opens with the reflective ‘Small Town Moon,’ in which Spektor waxes nostalgic for the place that she “must have left a thousand times” but stays with her, “the small town in her mind.”
Short, abrupt, and sinister, ‘Oh Marcello’ shows Spektor’s great linguistic gifts, a chorus tossed with Russian or French, sprinkled in with the “dhoosh dhoosh dhoosh” of her beatboxing. In surefire single ‘Don’t Leave Me (Ne me quitte pas)’ she is a singsong urban anthropologist, sketching scenes of her New York home — hipsters strutting on the Bowery, old feet in new shoes on Lexington, children sledding in the Bronx — in a kind of love letter to her home, making it strange that the outro goes, “I love Paris in the rain.”
The album grows somber with the mortality meditation of ‘Firewood.’ Sung in the second person to someone laying in a cold hospital bed, Spektor is tongue-in-cheek and tough love, hoping for recovery via peer pressure: “Everyone knows that you’re going to live / So you might as well start trying.” She has a kind of everyday mournful practicality that one day a you’ll wake up “missing every door you ever opened.” Poetry.
Haunted and creepy, Spektor’s normally angelic voice is slithering with filters in ‘Ballad of a Politician.’ She whispers villainous urgings of “work your away around the room, you’ll make it big,” before giving way to a full-throated chorus: “But I am not number, not a name! I am a well laid plan.” Spektor warns us that the handshakes are how the world is made. “You’re gonna make us scream some day / You’re gonna make us weep / You’re gonna make it big.” It’s Spektor the most bitter we’ve heard her. Clearly, her climb into popular consciousness has been difficult.
‘The Party’ finds the indie pop princess going overly endearing: “You taste like birthday / You look like New Year.” It is exactly the kind of song you wish your crush would have put on your mixtape (take heed, romantics!). Even within the bubblegum, she takes an exultant tone, asking to give one more toast to all the friends we’ve lost. In the lilt of her voice, in the swell of those horns, Spektor is as innocent and enthused as ever.
These 11 small tracks are the stuff of the mystery and magic of the everyday, of the tenderness between people, of the constancy of life and death. To tackle the tried and trues without being trite is a tall order, and Spektor does so with aplomb. When she sings to you, it really feels like she’s seeing to you. When you share the ‘Cheap Seats’ with her, it’s like you’re really there.
Pack some sunscreen, because it’s going to be bright.