On Sprinter, you can hear singer/songwriter Mackenzie Scott breathe.
Literally, at times. “The Exchange,” the last and lengthiest cut on the phenomenal sophomore release from Scott, whose recording moniker is Torres, is a study in aural intimacy. Scott’s refrain is a taut, tortured plea: “Mother, father / I’m underwater.” Her voice trembles and cracks the way voices sometimes do when they are conceding something shameful. And between the words, you can just about hear the creaks of the studio chair, the fumbling swipe when someone’s hand brushes the vocal mic. On Sprinter, everything—family, desperation, the songs themselves—is laid bare.
Which is not to say it’s all sweet and pretty. While Torres’ self-titled 2013 debut was a hushed affair—even the loud bits came in gradual, measured bursts—Sprinter crackles and explodes, with a dynamic range that’d make Steve Albini blush. “Strange Hellos” sputters to life with mumbled condolences set to slight staccato chords, but the song’s denouement is a vicious snarl, all self-preservation and no apologies (“I hope you find what you’re looking for,” in a voice coated with vinegar and rage, has never so resembled a threat). Better still is “New Skin,” which hints at new starts and unresolved trauma as gorgeous, whining guitars give way to Scott’s formidable moan. The song’s lyrics reference the singer’s age (23 then, 24 now) but the climax hardly shies from rough and lived-in wisdom: “If you’ve never known the darkness”—cue howling, hell-warped guitar scrapes—“then you’re the one who fears the most.”
Though raised with “Southern conservative roots” in Georgia, Torres left for Nashville and then New York to launch her career. She fled even further, to small-town Dorset, to record Sprinter. (There she worked with PJ Harvey vets Ian Olliver and Rob Ellis, who co-produced the record, thus ensuring there won’t be a review without Harvey’s name cropping up somewhere in it.) And it figures: the album obsessively chronicles transformation, escape—the heavy stuff. “I wish I was the sea,” Scott repeats in a rare, suspended falsetto on the lilting “A Proper Polish Welcome.” “New Skin” suggests running from past identities and casts a skeptical eye on religion, while the title track, by turns urgent and soaring, with siren-blare guitars and a driving rhythmic backbone, literally invokes the act of running, with references Scott’s days in high school track.
It’s a different sort of escape that consumes “The Exchange” and “Son, You Are No Island,” which uses sci-fi-synth sparseness as a means to ominous effect rather than intimacy. Both tracks deal with familial dislocation—Scott and her mother were each adopted (see: “Moon & Back,” from the last record)—and while the latter scolds a “firstborn feeling left behind,” “The Exchange” takes the more novel view of the child whose mother searches for her own mother (futilely, because the records have been lost). Sprinter is rich with these sharp little details (that flooded basement of adoption records, a pastor downed by a porn habit, a George W. Bush impression on “Cowboy Guilt”) that jut out from the lyrics like the veins you imagine popping from the artist’s neck as she enunciates them. And it’s eclectic, too, with “The Harshest Light” and “Cowboy Guilt” adding drum machine squiggles and synth treatments to the mix. Only the latter track, with its abrupt starts and squelches, feels a bit misplaced, lacking Rob Ellis’ typically forceful touch (this is the guy who drummed on Rid Of Me). But it’s the shortest track on the album, and is followed by one of the longest, “Ferris Wheel,” which glides by in seven minutes of gorgeous, world-weary exhaustion.
After spending just a month and a half with Sprinter, it already feels like these songs have been around for a long time, which is reasonable indication that they will be with us for a while. The most intriguing of them—aside from “New Skin” or “The Exchange” or, sure, OK, the entire set—may be the title track. “Sprinter,” which most explicitly references Scott’s Baptist origins, winds down from catharsis with another well-worn and memorable refrain: “There’s freedom to / And freedom from / And freedom to run from everyone.”
It’s never quite clear what she’s running from, or where to. But on Sprinter, she gets there.