Album Review: Sophia Kennedy – Monsters

[City Slang; 2021]

Sophia Kennedy’s self-titled debut album arrived like a bolt of lightning in 2017 – a cutting flash of musical curiosity that seemed to explode out of nowhere. Her mix of style and genre, combined with distinctly dramatic vocal performances coalesced into a bold and original debut. On her sophomore effort, Monsters, Kennedy doubles down on the eclectic nature of her music, offering up a lengthy set of songs that range from experimental electronica to a capella ballads.

Though many of the tracks on Monsters are upbeat, there is a dark entity underpinning them, dragging its fingers across the glossy veil. As the album title and cover suggest, something sinister hangs over Kennedy, waiting to pounce at the most unsuspecting moment. It’s difficult to define exactly what it is, but this sense of anxiety is woven throughout the record, bubbling to the surface in some tracks more than others. Opening number “Animals Will Come” serves as a perfect example with its creeping synth melody and backing organs. Filled with imagery of chewed bones and broken skulls, the song has an eerie presence: “Nothing hurts me anymore / See my raw bone smile / I’ll be gone for a while,” Kennedy muses. 

The tracks on Monsters play out like fractured fever dreams, layering catchy pop hooks and skittering beats over haunted lyrical prose. Kennedy hops between styles on each track as if she’s escaping what’s come immediately prior. Though the songs can feel disparate, some conjoining threads run throughout, such as the deep bass synths, oppressive atmosphere, and Kennedy’s vocal presence, which is still just as commanding as it was on her debut. She showcases her vocal chops on tracks like “Chestnut Avenue” and the following “Do They Know”, which is almost entirely a cappella save for a synth filling in the low end. How Kennedy layers her voice to such marvellous effect makes even the weaker moments on the album an intriguing listen at worst. At 47 minutes, though, songs like the meandering “Seventeen” and the late-album interlude “Brunswick” add unnecessary bulk. 

Between the nightmares of airplane crashes (“Chestnut Avenue”) and deers hitting windshields (“I’m looking Up”), Kennedy taps into some more lucid themes. On the alluring “Loop”, she uses a revolving piano sample as a backdrop for lyrics about the cycles of traits and behaviors that can be unknowingly passed down through families and relationships: “Our fathers are insane / Cause their fathers are insane,” she proposes, “Everything falls from the top / First it bends and then it drops / It’s always someone else’s fault.” 

Similarly, “I Can See You” imagines anxiety and depression as a physical force, surrounding and pulling on Kennedy like a shifting whirlpool. She speaks to this creature as if it stands before her: “Are you fact, are you fiction? / You appear in many shapes / We’ll both look the same / Once we lie in our graves,” she tells it. The lyricism on Monsters is far less playful than on her debut, but her whimsical flair for writing engaging songs remains intact. 

Kennedy can come off as enigmatic, but not without reason: “The truth is, there’s so much to say / And if I could, I would (say it) / But all words seem lost / Stuck in reality,” she admits on “Cat On My Tongue”. Kennedy may be speaking to us from “another world”, but her music has never sounded more tangible.