Add Sadie Dupuis’ name to a long list of poetically inclined indie rock songwriters who deal in sometimes frustrated, often disaffected, always razor-sharp lyrics. Dupuis actually completed an MFA in poetry, though that hasn’t turned the stanzas she sings while fronting Speedy Ortiz into ivory tower academia. They retain their approachable angst and honest charm, which probably has something to do with the fact that Dupuis earned her degree at UMass Amherst. The state’s indie rock history and current vibrant scene both resonate deeply in Speedy Ortiz’s songs, but new album Foil Deer rings loudly on its own accord, proving the band as a unique voice taking another big step toward iconic status.
The bands currently at the top in Massachusetts take on the brainy, forward-thinking (yet rooted in tradition) mentality that would be expected of the Boston-area college set. In addition to their fresh sound and eye on history, bands like Krill and Pile ride the line between highbrow concepts and immediate, accessible thrills. Rather than communal spleen-venting or joyous shout-along commiserating, Dupuis and Speedy Ortiz explore their emotions in the more confessional language of a close friend talking to you on a night car ride. They drift between guarded metaphors and biting quips as the moment dictates, but always want to share the moment in one way or another.
The band differs, too, from their New England college rock forebears Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and Throwing Muses, and The Breeders. They’re less mythic than Frank Black, more communicative than J Mascis, toothier than Kristin Hersh, more verbose than Kim Deal. There’s a reason Dupuis references blades and poison in her lyrics; her words, her weapon of choice, infiltrate, cut, and sting with honed precision rather than bash or brawl. Much like debut Major Arcana, Foil Deer’s linchpin lines come fast and furious, each one outdoing the last. Musically, the album makes a few bold choices, some of which stick better than others, but all of which show that Speedy Ortiz intends to stick around and fight.
On Major Arcana highlight “No Below”, Dupuis bemoaned “the weight of my brain, the fear of my cold head” and how “you never saw me, interred in the ice.” Sure, the song gets to a place of some hope (“Better off just being dead, without my old friend” becomes “Better off just being dead, but I didn’t know you yet”), but the frostbite lingers. Icy water returns on Foil Deer standout “Raising the Skate”, though this time Dupuis takes a more aggressive stance: “Dip a toe until it’s soaked and freezing/ But just because I let you kill time dangling me/ From the quarry doesn’t mean that I won’t land on my feet.” She’s the “shooter not the shot,” after all, asking heaven to pity the dead-to-the-world movements of one who has (and conceivably is) a “hypnic jerk.”
Bassist Darl Ferm and drummer Mike Falcone lurch to a menacing rhythm on the verse of “Dot X”, only to give way to a cohesive wash at the chorus as Dupuis threatens to use her blade for the second time on the album. Devin McKnight and Dupuis ripple their guitars across the rushing tempo of “Swell Content”, allowing the vocalist to drop words like “lobotomy” and “balustrade” without blinking an eye. The latest in a line of outsider anthems, “The Graduates” finds Dupuis detailing how she’s no longer “best at being second place.” Directed at a “you” who no longer even thinks of her second, it could be your next post-breakup song just as easily as your existential terror theme song.
There are some growing pains here, too. “Homonovus” cracks too far apart for the quartet to tie everything back together; the transition from lithe hush to distorted shout doesn’t quite find its seams. The No Doubt R&B groove of “Puffer” fits like a Halloween costume — it’s an interesting experiment, one that could lead to more successful exploration of the sound, but sticks out like a sore thumb.
“I go riding in cars, but I’m not the driver,” Dupuis sings, hushed, on “My Dead Girl”, seemingly after another messy end to a relationship. But don’t take that for complacency. This is a knotty act of defiance. She’s got “a brain like a sphinx, but nails like a prom queen.” The song’s chorus and title together share echoes with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, where an episode titled “Drive With a Dead Girl” finds an evil male presence driving with a murdered innocent in his trunk. But Dupuis is transforming and leaving a dead self behind, controlling her own lack of control in a way. Unlike Taylor Swift on the bleachers, she’s acting and not watching: “Stay on the bleachers, from there you can watch me.”
Dupuis and Speedy Ortiz walk along intersections effortlessly: now and then, power and fragility, intricate poetry and direct prose, pain and pleasure. Foil Deer does this as well as their excellent debut, but also takes some risks in its growth. Thanks to the band’s emotive arrangements and Dupuis’ empathetic, moving words, Speedy Ortiz ought to empower a generation of outsiders who are also frustrated, disaffected, and looking at the world with wide eyes for something to hold on to.
Essential Tracks: “Raising the Skate”, “The Graduates”, and “My Dead Girl”