Poppy synth dominates the new sound without restricting it.
The album cover for Loner hints that things have changed. Caroline Rose should be doing roots-rock, getting a little swagger into her rockabilly. Instead, she’s lighting a day’s worth of cigarettes while dressed like a Royal Tenenbaums understudy. On this new disc, Rose dodges Wes Anderson twee, but plays pop bright enough with lyrics funny enough to gussy up some serious concerns, resulting in an album consistently surprising and entertaining.
Her poppy synth dominates the new sound without restricting it. Farfisa fans fete; that instrument’s turned lose. Rose could probably gild her sound and hit the dance clubs, but she takes sandpaper to her music too often for that. “Money” stands out for its edges, but its words do even more, as Rose sings about straightforward paper-chasing even as her performance undercuts her lyrical literalness. “Bikini” provides an energetic hook, but Rose attacks, taking down sexist practices while singing of entertainment offers that come with one condition: “All you’ve got to do is put on this little bikini…and dance!” She’s one kill short of a riot grrrl moment while finding her own way.
Rose doesn’t shy from cultural critiques, but she doesn’t rely on them either. “To Die Today” takes a dark turn, briefly shifting the whole album as it meditates on death, inviting the experience. The track’s pulse and mood depart significantly from the retro-funk running through much of the disc, including the following number, the comical James Brown-nodding “Soul No. 5.” A couple tracks later, Rose begins anxiously looking over her shoulder with “Talk,” the unnerving evening after the club.
In their variety, these oddities fit well in the happily unsettled Loner. More than anything else, Rose sounds as if she’s figured out how to have fun while doing whatever she wants on an album that shifts constantly without ever being jarring. It opens with “More of the Same,” which laments repetition and tends toward depression and disillusionment. If that singer despairs, the rest of the music commits to breaking that feeling, whether taking on single parenting (“Jeannie Becomes a Mom”) or obsession with another couple’s relationship (“Animal”).
“Cry!” shows the complexity of Rose’s approach within a single track. The song has just enough pop to reference “Pumped Up Kicks” (itself a catchy-but-troubled number), but the song reveals the stress and frustration involved in success. It doesn’t resist achievement, but acknowledges that when “You’re the brass ring,” then “You’re going to cry, little girl.” Rose narrates the pressure put on a woman ascending, not just in her singer’s meanness but in the song’s spooky bridge, after which the indie-pop feels especially claustrophobic. The release from this moment doesn’t come in the song itself, but in Rose’s largeness across the rest of her writing, whether satirical or mildly nuts, as on “Smile! AKA Schizodrift Jam 1 AKA Bikini Intro,” a jam that feels like every bad stretch of event photograph turned into psychedelia. Rose goes everywhere across this album, but always serving a singular expression, and it frequently does induce smiling.
Except when people want to die, of course. But even then, at least the synths are having a good time.