Album Review: Cross Record’s Third Album Is A Morbid Trove Of Experiments
By Max Freedman
Across the three-plus years following Cross Record’s infuriatingly overlooked 2016 album Wabi-Sabi, founding member Emily Cross has gone through no shortage of personal upheavals. She began working as a “death doula” (someone who guides people through their final moments of life through ceremony and rituals), went sober, and got divorced. Cross Record’s self-titled third album and Wabi-Sabi follow-up is appropriately morbid for an artist whose life has involved so much death, whether the literal deaths comprising her career or the deaths of her drinking or marriage. Her sparest arrangements, bleakest melodies, and most lethargic production methods to date result in an album that often replaces Cross’ prior songwriting approach with fragmented electronic stylings and an unabashed, newfound love for hefty, programmed beats.
The fractured side of Cross’ newest songs tends to emerge when she’s exploring solitude and, of course, death. As Cross asks “How can you carry me?/You’re only a dove” on “An Angel, a Dove,” gentle synthetic plucking forms a stark, macabre backdrop for Cross’ ruminations on death. Likewise, on closing track “I Am Painting,” as Cross sings of fading, dreaming, and reclaiming herself, she sounds content with the dual prospects of death and being alone as heavily modulated vocal layers come to bat against a brief but cathartic cacophony of cymbals and toms.
Cross Record’s songs are just as narcotic when they don’t depend so strongly on electronic elements. “Face Smashed, Drooling” is unsubtle about Cross’ choosing to go sober (“I wake up/Face smashed and drooling/I’ve had enough”), and it employs little more than grumbling guitar lines and whole-note tom thwacks to paint a particularly meaningful hangover. The unsettling dirge “Licorice” uses a minimalist palette of whisper-quiet guitars and slowly muttering synths to support Cross’ vision of her burial: “Salt coating me/ants cover me/build a hill on me/name it after me.”
Although most of Cross Record’s songs fall into the splintered category, those that do have more structure register as the album’s high points. Lead single “PYSOL My Castle” is a gorgeous reverie of lazy-river synths across which Cross, in a higher register than the one she often uses on Cross Record, recalls the simultaneous overcrowding and bliss that defined her time spent in Mexico, where much of the album was conceived. “Hollow Garden,” two pummeling minutes of beatwork, is both the album’s most incessantly replayable track and a mere warmup for “Y/o Dragon,” the masterful, ambitious Cross Record centerpiece it precedes. Both songs showcase Cross newly embracing programmed beats, but whereas the former rides the same gripping loop for its entirety, the latter is a seven-and-half-minute behemoth across which eerie waves of synth hop around watery electronic percussion while Cross, to keep herself motivated to live, goes full Daenerys: “Be a dragon/That’s how I’ll help myself…What am I?/I’m a dragon.”
The split between Cross Record’s listless state and its more hyperactive one may prove challenging for many listeners, especially those unfamiliar with Cross’ previous work. Making the record even more inaccessible is the unorthodox vocal technique that Cross has retained from her time in the trio Loma. While working with Dan Duszynski and Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg in this trio, which released its self-titled debut album last year, Cross accidentally recorded her voice at a slightly lower speed and pitch than usual and wound up loving its sound. This vocal production technique dominates Cross Record, perhaps to honor Cross’ divorce from Duszynski. Although listeners will be hard-pressed to identify any Cross Record lyrics regarding divorce, and no official press materials about the album so much as mention Duszynski, the holdover of this vocal technique from Loma may honor how that album in part documented her marriage’s collapse in real-time.
Although Cross’ Loma-style vocal production ensures the ominous nature of songs such as “What Is Your Wish?” and “Face Smashed, Drooling,” this technique is a far cry from the fearsome, trepidatious singing she employed on Wabi-Sabi anthems such as “Basket” and “Something Unseen Touches a Flower to My Forehead.” Only Cross Record’s beat-heavy songs match those Wabi-Sabi gems in addictiveness, which isn’t to say that Cross Record is boring or flat—it just requires more patience to enjoy.
Those nostalgic for Cross Record’s prior sounds will nevertheless find a Wabi-Sabi soundalike in Cross Record’s second single, “The Fly.” On this track, Cross’ voice is at its most unmodulated, with live drums, mournful pianos, and shrill synths coalescing into a ballad that matches Wabi-Sabi’s eerie, inviting nature with the thoroughly experimental dejection of Cross Record. “My mind is a fragile vase,” she sings, and this statement could aptly summarize the entirety of the album: delicate, occupying some shape that no other object can quite achieve, and artistically inspired by experiences that only unchanging images committed to art can properly convey.