The joy of the album is hearing Brennan try and feeling the record’s growing pains.
Cait Brennan, who broke out in 2016 at the age of 46 with her debut album Debutante, is a fascinating vocalist who is seemingly at war with trite lyrics and musical tropes. Her voice is rich and captivating, a throwback to the days of glam rock with an unmistakable David Bowie influence. She could easily carve out an evergreen niche churning out droll power pop, but on her second album Third, she expands into other genre influences and challenges herself as a lyricist to bring a sense of specificity to every bar. She doesn’t always succeed, but the joy of the album is hearing her try and feeling the record’s growing pains.
Brennan cites Big Star’s seminal Third as a major influence on the album (she used some of the same equipment Alex Chillton and Chris Bell did to make it and recorded in the same studio), and at its best moments, Brennan’s work does capture some of its namesake’s dark humor and languid feel. This holds true on highlights like the sauntering ballad “Goodbye Missamerica” and the outstanding “He Knows Too Much,” a song that blends Pet Sounds harmonies with a storyline that feels lifted out of FX’s Fargo. Brennan isn’t a total throwback, but her earnestness and lack of restraint is certainly a different dynamic compared to many of today’s best lyricists, who operate in a more restrained lo-fi medium (i.e. Courtney Barnett, Alex Lahey or Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo).
Brennan has a killer ear for melody that elevates ho-hum songs like “Shake Away,” and she throws herself fully into every note, whether she’s belting or working into her falsetto. The main knock on Third is that Brennan’s lyrics occasionally feel too campy. The pop culture niche aspect of “Benedict Cumberbatch” is cute initially but grows tiresome over the entire run time (“‘cause you don’t deserve this song/ I’m giving it to Benedict Cumberbatch/ You may have woke an itch in me/ But only he can scratch”), and it winds up feeling out of place. Brennan is great at capturing emotions and making them feel immediate, but she’s not well equipped for pop culture pastiche.
Brennan’s battle with Parkinson’s disease has often been connected to her sudden mid-life creative outburst, and at times on Third, it does feel like she’s trying to squeeze as much as possible into what could potentially be a short career. That sense of immediacy works well for the most part, and it’s fun to hear her approximate freewheeling blues rock on “Caitiebots Don’t Cry” and spunky pop punk on “The Angels Lie,” but it also does make the album a bit of a tiresome listen if you don’t fully buy into Brennan as a character worth following. Those who prize character above all else in their music will likely find Brennan compelling enough for 13 tracks, but the rest of us should hope that her relentless experimentation on Third helps her find a genre comfort zone that can work for her to create the truly great record she seems capable of producing.