Album Review: Torres – Thirstier

[Merge; 2021]

Some artists never write a song as good as “Three Futures”, the title track from Mackenzie Scott’s third album as TORRES. In some ways, perhaps it’s unfair to mention this before anything from an artist’s newest album in a review of said album, but it bears mentioning that, no matter what else Scott does, she will always have at least one perfect song under her belt. “Three Futures” is one of the most mature and clear-eyed breakup songs of recent memory, and an uncharacteristically straightforward ballad for Scott, who usually revels in obtuse imagery, angular meters, and off-kilter song structures. Where her work is usually knotty and strange, “Three Futures” stands apart as a sublimely still and sad song of profound honesty.

Unfortunately, sometimes Scott’s songwriting habits get the better of her. A good chunk of Three Futures was taken up by lyrics that felt closer to something from an intro to creative writing course, mistaking abstraction for depth, at least superficially. And her followup record, last year’s faint Silver Tongue, doubled down on it, treating the listener to overworked ideas, jagged structures, and meters that felt awkward. Scott has an experimental hand with rhythm and flow, and while sometimes the results are immaculate — “Three Futures”, “Honey”, and “New Skin” being particular highlights from her catalog — her batting average is spotty.

Luckily, Scott has quickly returned with a new record, and it’s her most accessible and straightforward in a while. Thirstier is Scott’s big cowboy album, so to speak, with dusty electric guitars, swaying synths, and as much lovelorn swagger as she can muster. Scott has made no secret of her attempts as of late to create a sort of queer reading on the place the ‘cowboy’ has in the American mythos, and that’s on full display here, especially on early single “Don’t Go Puttin’ Wishes in My Head”. But it comes up in subtler ways, too; see how blissfully and bluntly Scott immortalizes her happiness with her partner — visual artist Jenna Gribbon — across 10 relatively straight-ahead rock songs. It’s a subversion that exists if you want it to, but isn’t required to enjoy the record. It’s a subtext for people who need or want subtext.

It’s also worth noting that this is, by far, the catchiest TORRES album since at least Sprinter, and even that record had some lugubrious ballads and angular textures. Thirstier’s tracks pop with bristling distortion and percolating synths, but never become too offensive or overdriven. Sometimes Scott still dabbles in her old habits, as on “Are You Sleepwalking?” where a chorus flies in out of nowhere, having nothing to do with the song around it, and “Constant Tomorrowland”, where she struggles to fit too many words that don’t really sing well together into a meter that’s already fast and breathless. But even here, the moves are made with a bit more understatement and grace than usual, calling less attention to themselves.

Overall, Thirstier is the kind of ‘normal’ rock album that Scott may never have believed she would end up making back in her early days. It feels like an artist who’s stopped trying to do everything at once, and is instead honing in on a few good skills and really attempting to document the joy she’s found in her life.

Joy is not a common topic in popular songwriting, mostly because it can come off as cheesy without trying to. Here, though, Scott almost luxuriates in that cornball nature of the happy pop song, and fits it to her particular style. The guitars still chug, her voice still cuts through like a whip, and she lands on several moving lyrics, especially on them 90s-esque title track, where she sings, desperately, “The more of you I drink the thirstier I get” and “Baby keep me in your fantasies / Baby keep your hands all over me.” It’s so rare to get this kind of baldly personal, romantic, and sexual lyrics from a queer songwriter, and it’s exhilarating to hear.

The last neck of Thirstier is perhaps its most surprising but also most successful. The programmed drums become more pronounced, synths start to make their voices heard a little more, and Scott ventures into territory less suited for the saloon and more for the late night outdoor concert hall (or the planetarium). As the album sends us off with one of the unlikeliest but funniest hooks of her career (“Everybody wants to go to heaven / But nobody wants to die to get there”) it’s hard to hang on to the darkness latent in the closing moments, because Thirstier is so full of joy and light, in a way that not many rock records are these days. It might not be her sharpest or most elaborately written record — in fact, it may be her simplest, and not every song is as gripping all the way through as it could be (especially “Drive Me” and “Hug From a Dinosaur”, which threatens to overdo the cheese quotient), but it is perhaps her most approachable and her most celebratory, and a solid reminder of why she garnered our attention in the first place.