Brimming with limitless innovation and confidence, Liverpool’s Natalie McCool lands a great artistic leap forward with her latest LP, Memory Girl. The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has become an admired figure of the alt-pop scene, putting in the years constantly developing and honing her sound. Here, five years on since her last full length release, The Great Unknown, McCool presents a set of songs that display her instinctive ear for melody, bolstered by incredible production from start to finish and glorious technicolour synths that sweep across every number. Comparison points this album brings to mind are Yeah Yeah Yeahs classic It’s Blitz and HAIM’s output of recent years.
Every track here is worthy of being a single and deserves praise on its own grounds. We start with ‘Heaven,’ a rock-solid pop number that introduces McCool’s signature style with aplomb, with bright, instantaneous hooks pulling us in from the off. ‘Devils‘ picks up the tempo, reinforced by a storming rhythm section that builds to a powerhouse chorus. ‘Giving It Up‘ slows the pace a little, bringing to the fore the emotional range this album conveys, by taking us down a more introspective, heart-on-sleeve route.
Next, we arrive at former single and anthemic calling-card, ‘Closure.’ A playful confidence is stamped all over the track, as huge, pounding drums make their mark alongside killer duel guitar and synth lines, that really makes the track zip along with pace and energy. There’s a typical tightness to McCool’s sound, that of complete ownership of her own output, and like all great pop makers, she knows instinctively where to take a three minute runtime, not wasting a second, effortlessly inventive as she goes along. ‘Tongue Tied‘ pulls off a similar feat, experimenting with pace and form whilst all the while sticking to a killer hook. McCool’s knack is knowing exactly how to structure an effective pop number, yet never going down the obvious route you might expect. You’re constantly coming away with something surprising and new upon each listen.
Lyrically, McCool channels ideas and themes she has built upon throughout her career, dealing with self-exploration from a very candid, personal perspective, which twinned with her consistently impassioned, characterful vocal performances, is endlessly endearing. Speaking about the new album, she says, “‘Memory Girl’ is about childhood and adulthood. Songs that feel introspective. Songs about not having a voice, finding a voice, jealousy, love, loss and peace. It’s about things that have left a deep mark on you one way or another, those moments from the past that hit you and knock you sideways, either making you laugh out loud or nearly die of embarrassment. It has a strong focus on the habits and mental state of myself and those very close to me. It’s really close and introspective. It’s about discovering yourself, recognising what’s good for you and what’s not – it’s about learning curves.”
It’s a testament to the core of these songs that wherever the music shifts, they are always grounded by an emotional truth, a resonance that digs deeper. It’s what makes a great pop song standout: an underlying conflict or turmoil that sits beneath its positive, upbeat exterior. These songs could work just as effectively with a simple acoustic backing, yet the way that the production is built around them perfectly supports and enhances their overall impact. The production choices that have been made are not just there for effect or to show off technique, the work feels built on conscious motives, whilst remaining instinctively true to itself artistically.
‘A Sun Going Down,’ takes us into the second half of the album, and stands in good stead as being some of the best work McCool has produced to date; richly textured synth lines sweep you away from the start. There’s a beautiful, cinematic quality to this piece that feels widescreen in its ambition, universal in its resonance. This is followed by another excellent prior single, ‘Take Me To Your Leader,’ which whilst never failing to engage the feet with its sumptuous moody melody, again looks to explore this duality between darkness and light.
A trio of emotionally contemplative numbers make up the latter section of the album, starting with ‘Better,’ which stands as an interesting companion piece to ‘Giving It Up’ – these softer touchstones work wonders in pacing the album alongside the more upbeat, radio-friendly numbers, lending a flow that keeps the listener engaged from start to finish. ‘Listen To The Radio‘ has an astonishing, otherworldly production that is impossible not to get lost in, dreamy and formless to start before percussion kicks in, driving the track’s energies toward McCool’s optimistic declaration that “dark days are gone“. The album rounds out on ‘Old Movies,’ another reflective number that holds a timeless quality in the refrain, to “sing yourself a new song“. It’s the perfect closer to sum up the themes and experiences of the album as a whole.
Memory Girl finds McCool, the artist, at the top of their game, committed to her sound but never static. McCool often takes the less conventional route, preferring a left-field approach. In their pacing and form, these ten tracks together stand as a testament to the album as an enduring art form. It’s a best-of-the-year contender, for sure.
To support the release of Memory Girl, Natalie McCool has announced a pair of UK headline shows for later this month, playing at:
18th August – Jaguar Shoes, London (free entry)
19th August – Kazimier Stockroom, Liverpool
Photo Credit: Robin Clewley