Wikipedia calls her “anti-folk” and “baroque pop,” “indie rock,” “blues,” and “pop,” but how exactly does one categorize a Russian-born, New York City-bred pianist and singer-songwriter who whispers a lullaby one moment and sways over lyrics faster than thoughts the next? In Regina Spektor’s newest album, “What We Saw from the Cheap Seats,” released May 29, she again showcases an innate ability to compile catchy rhythms, foreign languages, and deft piano into a coherent selection.
It is to be expected that this new release showcases Spektor’s husky, emotive voice over her flowing piano, just as she has in her previous three albums—“Soviet Kitsch,” “Begin to Hope,” and “Far”—with both upbeat songs like “Fidelity” and slow tunes like “Samson.” However, although this balance is present in her new album with songs such as “Open” and “How,” most songs instead feature a prominent percussion accompanying her vocals. In her opening song, “Small Town Moon,” Spektor tells a story of youth in a small, slow-paced town with a similarly sleepy piano, but the mood quickly shifts as a pounding percussion takes over. Spektor’s voice still comes through in these songs, but the softness and familiarity of her piano does not.
Spektor has been praised not only for her unique vocals, but also for her poetic lyrics. Quite like her past albums, Spektor sings about love and how to hold on to it once attained. Her song “Open” communicates the importance of staying open to love, even when it feels like one is waiting in vain. Although these songs are easy to identify with, Spektor expanded her subject matter for her new album, including songs that touch on all aspects of life, from politics and art to longing and loneliness.
Having grown up in a Russian family in the melting pot that is New York City, Spektor often works her knowledge of various foreign languages into her songs. “Après Moi” from the “Begin to Hope” exemplifies how the merging of her two backgrounds and cultures proves to be, rather than a language barrier for the listener, an opening that allows for an intensified connection to her emotions and a greater understanding of her background. Spektor achieves this same feat in her new album with the song “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas).” By weaving French into this song, Spektor heightens its lightness as she tells the story of journeying through Paris and the comparative dangers of New York City.
Perhaps one of the best songs off this release is “Ballad of a Politician,” with layered voices and a powerful message. Also known as the “Ballad of the Lovable Dictator,” Spektor sings about the tight, manipulative grasp politicians hold over the rest of the world, and how they will “make it big” someday while the rest of the people are screaming and weak. Although Spektor’s quick vocal transitions draw immediate attention, her lyrics prove to be even more impactful.
In “What We Saw from the Cheap Seats,” Spektor again delivers a strong collection of original songs that combine the fast-paced rhythms of music today with the traditional languages and hopes for love and freedom. Spektor has changed her style in this album, but the changes are evident of an intentional evolution. Though her connection to the piano is not as evident with the overwhelming sounds of drums, her vocals and words are not lost. As a result, what was once just music played on her out-of-tune piano in cafes has now come to be music worthy of thinking about, tapping your foot to, and listening to over again.