The cover art for Sucker’s Lunch, the third album from Oakland singer-songwriter and producer Madeline Kenney, shows the performer surrounded by a delectable assortment of food but unable to enjoy it. Instead, she stares off into space with a bemused, wide-eyed expression, too distracted by whatever’s running through her mind to even notice the banquet laid out in front of her. As odd as it may seem, the album cover is a suitable abstract of the album as a whole; there are plenty of garish and mouthwatering sounds on Sucker’s Lunch, but simmering below it all is an almost indefinable sense of yearning and soft poignancy.
With each new record, Kenney has made gradual but meaningful refinements to her version of art-rock with the help of a few key collaborators. Her first record was co-produced by Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bear, while her second effort brought in Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner. On Sucker’s Lunch, Kenney once again reached out to Wasner but also recruited Wye Oak’s other primary member, percussion expert Andy Stack. The contributions from both Wasner and Stack are instantly noticeable to the point where you’d be forgiven for mistaking portions of Sucker’s Lunch for Wye Oak songs if heard out of context. Still, the choice to enlist Wasner and Stack ends up being fruitful and helps cement Sucker’s Lunch as Kenney’s boldest, most assured record to date.
Whether due to Kenney’s tender songwriting or the meticulous production, the songs on Sucker’s Lunch levitate between crackling rock and dreamy art-pop. Kenney said she wasn’t interested in anything “easy or immediately apparent” while writing the album, but the hooks and melodies are surprisingly accessible. That’s not to say, however, the music is simplistic. Rather, Kenney has crafted songs that feel purposeful and stuffed full of memorable moments.
Throughout the record, Kenney’s lyrics spill out like half-forgotten memories, evoking a particular emotion or frame of mind, rather than doting on specific details or painstakingly-recreated stories. While this approach makes it harder to decipher a clear-cut interpretation from certain tracks, it aligns with Kenney’s songwriting to make for a more fluid listening experience.
Early highlight “Picture of You” has Kenney employing this ‘less is more’ tactic superbly. “I saw a picture of you / As a kid / And I cried,” she describes, and, with just a few words, she has already established two characters and created a relatable, profound relationship between them. When it comes to love, being able to accept that some truths will go unspoken is a quiet burden to bear, and Kenney captures that emotion in a succinct, heartfelt way. Instead of arduously explaining context, Kenney invites the listener in and allows them to make the connections and draw the conclusions for themselves. It may not appear all that impressive at first glance, but it’s effective nonetheless.
Later, Kenney shows how well this method can work for a variety of different topics. From forcing unwelcome realities out of her mind (“Cut the Real”) to a tender exchange between lovers (“Tell You Everything”) the range of themes covered on Sucker’s Lunch is vast compared to how sparse the lyric sheet is.
Similarly, the music on Sucker’s Lunch is far more fleshed out than anything she’s done prior. The addition of saxophone, live piano, and even some snappy marimba playing on the frenetic “Double Hearted” combine with a more standard assortment of instrumentation to forge a sense of breadth that has often been missing in her past work. The contributions from Wasner and Stack are no small feat as well. Wasner’s propulsive guitar work and buoyant bass lines are plentiful throughout, while Stack’s tight drumming keeps the songs anchored. There’s also a peculiar feature from Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner on the elastic and jangly lead single “Sucker”, and his voice ends up working well as a gruff foil to Kenney’s gentle tones. The collaborations add a lot to the overall sound and appeal of Sucker’s Lunch, but that shouldn’t be taken as a diminution of Kenney’s accomplishments; she is still in firm command, and her clear direction and confidence are evident from the opening moments of the record.
On Sucker’s Lunch, Kenney presents each song with a fervor only teased on previous outings and she has never sounded more compelling. It will be exciting to see how she continues to shape her sound and identity going forward, but for now, at least, she has served up a delightful feast of music to keep us satiated until that day arrives.