Album Review: Torres – What An Enormous Room

[Merge; 2024]

What an enormous room is Torres‘s ‘messy attic’ record. Mackenzie Scott has settled down in New York with her partner, painter Jenna Gribbons, and Gribbons’ son, enjoying the family life together. Scott has also found a comfortable musical home in Merge Records, an artist-run label that grants her the creative freedom she seeks. By a lot of people’s standards, this would be considered ‘success’. But ‘success’ is both a precarious and abstract thing once achieved: desires, fears, ambitions and failures will always be lurking somewhere around the corner.

Scott has plenty of things to be apprehensive about – especially since her much-publicised dispute with her former label 4AD. In her tenure with Merge so far, Torres has tested the parameters of her creativity with relish, veering from the slow-burning romanticism of Silver Tongue to the steamy hook-filled pop sensibility of Thirstier. Turns out that – at least within her creative output – Scott has plenty of room to manuever, and on What an enormous room, she unambiguously exults this revelation out loud. “Look at all the dancing I can do,” she speaks on “Jerk Into Joy”, her voice filled with guileless marvel.

But is too much of a good thing, actually, you know, a good thing? Or does that make you perceive the fragility of it all more acutely? This quandary prods at the underbelly across What an enormous room‘s not so enormous 35-minute span. Sonically, these are Torres’s most restrained, raggedy recordings yet, the kind of thrifty lo-fi pop arrangements that vaguely recall records like Low’s Drums and Guns, EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints or PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire?. The songs sound for the majority like scrapped demoes for Silver Tongue, sober and dried up from the intoxicated whimsy. It’s pretty telling visually too: the previous Torres album artworks feature rich, vibrant portraits of Scott made by Gribbons, whereas What an enormous room sports a more candid photo of Scott frolicking within the abundance of empty space – as if slightly daunted about the pressure of having to fill the interior up.

Complacency would be an easy pitfall for a lot of artists in this situation, but Torres – especially given her turbulent career arc – has seen too much to take it all for granted. An early highlight on What an enormous room is the breezy uptempo “Life as we don’t know it”, which crisply chronicles how Scott and her stepson nearly drowned in the ocean after being hauled by a rip current. It’s the kind of arresting experience that could have been unpacked with bombast and dramatics, but Torres retells it with scathing, fork-tongued irony. She coyly smites her fist at the heavens: “Each time I looked for God I drank a wave down every time / Don’t think I could have forgiven If the ocean took us both.” Though nearly dying often isn’t very funny, the fact that Torres can fling out one of her wittiest one-liners in hindsight tells us something about her headspace on this album: an arena where where joy acts as a tether for despair. The line also resonates as a cheeky callback to Scott’s Christian upbringing at a Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia.

Here’s the thing with joy, however: once earned, it’s underpinned by that infuriating fear of losing it. With a lot of headspace to contemplate life in all its small wonders, those fears and anxieties have a way of creeping back in, and What an enormous room provides the listener a candid view of Scott’s mechanisms for coping with this struggle. “I got the fear”, with its brittle, hollowed-out guitar melody and crackling beat, sits with this lingering anxiety: “Worry’s got me by the throat / I keep my feet to the road.” Scott more or less follows her own advice on the propulsive strut of “Happy man’s shoes”; “Won’t spend the rest of my days / Crawling into the frame,” embracing her blemishes and quirks with a subtle poke at the strong visual iconography of recent Torres albums. “Go ahead and call it unsuccess,” she retorts defiantly.

Without many big emotional crescendoes or higher stakes to fall back on, Scott’s songwriting on What an enormous room fixates on the more understated intricacies of the happenings orbiting her life. “Ugly mystery”, for example, was written for a friend in an abusive relationship who needed intimacy as a means to jump ship: it’s a song that – as Scott herself put it – explores morally grey areas of love and friendship, and how those dynamics can spill over in ways that defy rigid conventions of kinship. “Ugly mystery” boldly portrays intimacy as a curative agent, something one can only provide when they have built a strong foundation of joy and safety. It shows Torres testing the resilience of her own sanctuary.

There are times when What an enormous room threatens to slump under its insistence to shy away from bigger thematic broad strokes. It’s undeniably an economical album of texture and grit, grasping at straws to disinter new sustainable forms of illumination. Even though it courts Scott’s discomfort without flinching, it sounds like a fun, pressure-free album to have crafted, with the disposition of someone hauling around furniture or pulling out weeds from the garden. At this stage of her impressive career, Torres has become as resourceful a songwriter as any of her peers: an artist who can scrape enough substantial meditations from the bottom of the barrel to power through life’s incessant curveballs, if only for one day at a time. “No more artificial limits / So we’ve got our insanities / So we are inclined to bleed,” she sings over the sinister, steely trip-hop of “Artificial Limits”.

What an enormous room strikes as a means for Scott to prove to no one but herself that she can build her temple from scratch, embracing her inner non-conformist with steadfast spirit. Even within the sound of settling, Torres has plenty of charming things to say.