Album Review: Merpire – Simulation Ride

[Warner/ADA; 2021]

Merpire makes music about movies. Sometimes it’s obvious, like the rollicking, wry single “Dinosaur”, which – not entirely surprisingly – takes its inspiration from Jurassic Park. Sometimes it’s a little more subtle though, like on “Old Vein” where she imagines her life as both a rom-com and a horror movie, flitting between a bouncy warmth and an anxiety-inducing despair. The Australian musician isn’t coy about this fact though: her debut album, Simulation Ride, is “basically the video store of my mind” she explains. Listening to it sometimes feels like browsing the shelves of a Blockbuster, all nostalgic, homely, and warming fun; other times it’s like listlessly scrolling through endless options of things to watch on Netflix in a late night daze, unsure what will compliment your mood.

Merpire (the moniker of Melbourne-based artist Rhiannon Atkinson-Howat) also makes music that captures a feeling of daydreaming. You might tune out at points across Simulation Ride, but that’s not a slight against its quality. Indeed, it’s maybe even deliberate, as she has said the album “exists in hope of connecting with fellow daydreaming experts in creating their own personal simulation ride.” When Atkinson-Howat isn’t belting out a cathartic release like that at the end of “Dinosaur” or on the chorus of the boisterous slacker/stoner rocker “Heavy Feeling”, she elicits feelings of amicable friendliness and a neighbourly kind of hospitality. Simulation Ride feels easy and fun, like a no-stakes hangout with an old friend.

But, even if the stakes feel low, Atkinson-Howat still mines deep and personable feelings, capturing her life over the last few years. On the stomping thunder of bittersweet opening track “Village” she cleverly examines a past relationship through the lens of the symbiotic relationship of bell birds and the psyllids they protect on an island in the Royal Botanic Gardens in South Yarra. (Atkinson-Howat used to give guided lake tours of said island.) “It takes a village to love you,” she charges, conceding no one person can be everything for another. By the end of the track she flips the perspective: “It takes a village to love me.” Elsewhere, on aforementioned highlight “Heavy Feeling”, she’s exploring anxiety brought on by others and the outside world. “Surely flowers won’t want to hurt me,” she determines before stepping outside for some fresh air.

Indeed, she has a fine way with words that never feels overcooked, as if the phrases have emerged entirely naturally from the feeling she’s exploring. On the downcast ballad “Easy” she looks back on a toxic past relationship, reflecting “It’s crazy what love can do to your brain / It makes you patient with the idea of change.” “I’m gonna love each and every one of you / I can’t help it,” she sings on “Habit”, conjuring up the overwhelming adoration of the surrounding world when butterflies are in your stomach. Elsewhere on “Dinosaur”, her smirk is showing with a line like “I always thought you had to be born with it / But maybe that was just Maybelline.”

Because Atkinson-Howat and co-producer James Seymour (who is also her partner in the lockdown-borne conceptual band Wilson’s Prom) recorded over the course of a year in a variety of locations, Simulation Ride never sounds stale or too eager to impress. These songs go at their own pace and never sound hurried by some studio session about to end or a deadline that has to be met. Little features like the gently sweeping strings on “Lately” or the chiming glass playing on final track “Yusiimi” make for welcome sonic detail, but ornate touches like these are far from overused across the album. One can even appreciate the 73-second “Sink Interlude” for sounding like a alternate, dreamy version of later track “Sink In”, like under different circumstances and in a different frame of mind the track would have came out as a different creature.

There’s plenty of easy and valid comparisons to make for Merpire’s music and sound. Countrymates Courtney Barnett and Julia Jacklin (who Merpire has supported on stage in the past) for sure, but there’s also inflections of Mitski on the vocal harmonies of “Old Vein” and hints of Fiona Apple in the way Atkinson-Howat will occasionally drop her voice like a word or phrase weighs as much as a boulder. As far as debuts go, Simulation Ride sounds notably assured, and when it’s not sinking you into that airy daydreamy place, it can be strident and invigorating. There’s about a hundred movies where these tracks would fit in perfectly, and in Merprire’s world, that’s one of the highest compliments going.