Album Review: Sad13 – Haunted Painting

[Wax Nine; 2020]

During the 2010s, Speedy Ortiz mastermind Sadie Dupuis emerged as one of Bandcamp’s secret weapons. The band’s 2013 debut album Major Arcana was a landmark for 90s throwback-rock, a major trend at the time and one that is fairly reliable in the indie rock circles. Dupuis’ Malkmus mimicry was enjoyed and derided sometimes in the same conversation. What started as a solo project had blossomed into a full band project and thus the more quirky ideas laid on the backburner until her Sad13 debut Slugger in 2016.

With the third Speedy Ortiz album Twerp Verse in the rearview mirror, the poetry MFA-clad Dupuis returns to her solo project with a sense of refreshment. It’s this stark contrast that makes Sad13 feel like an actual solo project, instead of just unused demos for her full band. Most solo efforts share some kind of connection to their main projects, but Dupuis avoids that by steering clear of the grungier guitars and contemplative lyrics she employs for her full band, instead diving headfirst into her more emotive tendencies.

This approach to Sad13 is intentional; Dupuis is growing as a lyricist, and with Haunted Painting she’s taking that development and expending it in flowery postures. Early highlight “Hysterical” strikes a nerve for any individual feeling abandoned and made to feel crazy; “Hysterical / you wanna see me disappear / carve a little piece of my heart / then chop the rest for parts,” she spits, then continues “You wanna see me disappear / Turn the other cheek on your mess / utter disinterest.”

Dupuis is no stranger to pulling from past experiences for her music – a lot of it seems to stem from bad relationships – but what separates her from the herd is her wordplay, aided by her education in writing and music. “So, we’re gonna die / Faster than our fathers make crime / out of fiction, a silent cohesion / less paranoia, more progress,” she laments on “WTD?” (“what’s the drama?”) with just a thin layer of sourness as she contemplates the current state of affairs with apathy.

Haunted Painting’s strongest moments are when Dupuis is completely raw about her emotions – it provides that sick voyeuristic feeling that we all crave in hearing someone else explain their demons. On the flip side, Haunted Painting’s more strained moments come from her approach towards power-pop in the more sunny vein of a mainstream star. “Kissing the hero in the photo booth / we’re gonna get the picture soon / Love’s only magic by the light of the moon / and nighttime isn’t absolute,” she flutters on “With Baby”, a song that starts out with references to going to the mall, being lonely, and longing for affection. It feels a tiny bit awkward, and perhaps it’s simply because her lyrics are traditionally not so drenched in thick honey.

Sad13’s power-pop proclivities are heavier than ever on Haunted Painting; there’s so much more sugar dusted into choruses like the aforementioned “Hysterical” and “With Baby”, and even some faux trip-hop on “Ghost (of a Good Time)” to make it more pleasing to the ear – something rarely found on Major Arcana or even its follow-up Foil Deer. Songs like “Grief” and “The Crow” might feel slightly indebted to those records, but Dupuis course corrects with oddball production that makes them feel at home on Haunted Painting.

“Ruby Wand” is the only song that truly blurs the line between Speedy Ortiz and her solo work, as it incorporates some heavy distortions to finish it out, but otherwise Dupuis’ second album as Sad13 maintains that distinction between the acts. This isn’t to suggest that Speedy Ortiz is devoid of pop elements, but it’s a night and day situation here: Sad13 is an outlet for those extreme pop desires that Dupuis has. With this project she can go as far out there as she wants without worrying about her band members. The hook-heavy Haunted Painting is prime for tweens looking to break into indie rock sectors – it’s quirky, it’s light, it’s fun, and it’s Dupuis at her most earnest.