With the world seemingly on the verge of spiraling out of control at any moment, how does one navigate it? What do the ideas of life, death, time, connection, and love mean? Through her signature storytelling, Regina Spektor attempts to ponder these questions by presenting various perspectives; one character asks God, “why doesn’t it get better with time?” while another looks up to the cosmos for the truth. She doesn’t provide any answers, instead leaving listeners to reflect on their own thoughts and feelings afterwards.
To accompany her as she tackles these weighty subjects, producer John Congleton and arranger Jherek Bischoff envelop Spektor’s vocals with lavish production, including a full orchestra on many of the tracks. “Small Bill$” and the orchestral “The Trapper and Furrier”, both from her previous album Remember Us to Life, hinted at this sonic evolution, but, in both theme and sound, Home, before and after is by far Spektor’s most adventurous album. It dives headfirst into unknown territory with the strings on “Up the Mountain” reminiscent of a thriller film and the ending somewhere close to a hip-hop beat. Similarly, “Spacetime Fairytale” is a nine-minute odyssey that occasionally detours into jazz as the sound of tap dancing can be heard in the background. Later on, “Coin” is an excellent example of an instrumental buildup of tension and release.
Spektor’s vocals are as full of personality as her previous albums, and her lyrics are filled with ambiguity. On the theatrical second track “Up the Mountain” she sings, “In the flower, there’s a nectar / In the nectar there’s an answer / In the answer, there’s another.” This “answer” is left unstated and the journey may be interpreted as anything from the inner thoughts of a bee to the emotional truths artists persistently attempt to achieve. “What Might Have Been” and the closer “Through a Door” seem to understand life as a system of contradictions and balance, with the former saying “Sickness and flowers go together / Bombing and shelters go together.”
“Becoming All Alone” and “One Man’s Prayer” make an interesting pairing with both dissecting their characters’ relationships with God. In the midst of horn and strings, “Becoming All Alone” sees Spektor tell a story of a character whose prayers are unanswered by God, leaving them alone to wonder if he was ever there at all. Fans may recognize these lyrics in relation to “Laughing With”, a track off Spektor’s 2009 album Far, where one’s perspective on God changes depending on whether it’s a time of tragedy or a time of joy. “One Man’s Prayer” is a disturbing portrayal of a lonely man who tells God, “I just want some girl to love me back”; accompanying the same blissful production, he reveals his toxic and misogynistic traits, feeling entitled to a woman that he can possess, control, and abuse.
The heart of the record may lie in “Spacetime Fairytale”, an existential track that explores the world’s mysteries in a chaotic whirl of ever-changing sound. “Coin” is perhaps the most intriguing tale in which someone seeks to find the truth to life. They go to a shaman, scientist, president, and baby but leave empty-handed. Finally, they find solace in a lover and find that “Love is enough / A reason to stay,” understanding the answer may lie in what one makes of the present. Spektor isn’t making any grand, overarching statements here but instead interacting with the world by observing, understanding, and ultimately connecting with others.
Starting out as a classically-trained singer-songwriter who miraculously toured with The Strokes, Spektor’s career has now spanned two decades. Her eighth studio album may be her most ambitious yet, but that added weight can lead some songs to run too long or feel overstuffed. She may still be trying to find the right balance between her larger soundscape and storytelling, but Home, before and after is an exciting evolution that feels both old and new.