Mackenzie Scott’s self-released debut is a masterclass in intricate and tender storytelling
The opening notes of Torres’ debut album are an unmistakable invitation to battle: pairs of clean cello slashes trigger a dry snap, like a gun being cocked and fired. Fittingly, the studio where it was recorded was used as a makeshift military hospital during the American Civil War, though no blood was shed in the five days Mackenzie Scott spent there recording ‘Torres’: the Georgia-born songwriter exercises white-knuckle control over her emotions across these 10 torrid songs, not spilling a drop.
Age 18, Scott moved to Nashville to study songwriting at Belmont University (she was in the same class as Diarrhea Planet). Now 22, she recently tweeted her lecturer’s Song Evaluation Form for the song ‘Jealousy And I’, a seething meditation on suppressed feelings in which she admits, “I’m suffocating you, I know/It’s just the only way I know to love”, over circular, warm, solo electric guitar figures. On the form, Scott scored well on “unique ideas”, “identifiable elements” and the fact that it “rhymes well”, which goes to show why studying songwriting is the quickest way to neuter anyone’s gifts. Fortunately Scott escaped the class with her wits intact, setting a more poetic yardstick for budding songwriters in a recent interview: “Remember that your words hold the power of life and death.”
It’s a lofty ideal, but one that Scott stays true to on ‘Torres’, coming off as a fatalistic romantic “starving for truth” inside a thick skin: the battle rages between the internal and external on songs that recall EMA, Scout Niblett and Jason Molina. “I’ll never know if looking out the window is what brings me to my knees”, she sings on ‘Come To Terms’, the only acoustic song here, “Or if it’s what’s inside that’s killing me”.
With its delicate, Rhys Chatham-worthy glow, closing song ‘Waterfall’ holds the key to Scott’s psychological state on ‘Torres’: she tentatively contemplates the freedom offered by the rocks below, envying the carefree nature of the water that “flings itself from the devil edge so easily/It doesn’t hesitate/Or wonder if it’s doing the right thing”. Scott is an anxious over-thinker, an obsessive who might be momentarily freed from the prison of her own mind by a beautiful smile (‘Don’t Run Away, Emilie’), but whose emotional forays have been so scarring that she eventually asks on ‘Waterfall’, with breathtaking candour, “Did you ever make it halfway down and think/God, I never meant to jump at all?”
When you hear Scott sing about ruinous relationships, it’s easy to understand why she’s cynical: these connections are hard-won and easily lost. “Honey, while you were ashing in your coffee/
I was thinking ’bout telling you / What you’ve done to me”, Scott sings steadily on ‘Honey’, letting you imagine how her partner absent-mindedly wrecked her life just as they spoil their coffee, a litany of crimes she thinks about while fiddling with the sugar packets. It’s masterful storytelling, and even though she never explodes at her partner, the gathering storm of feedback and rage in her vocal makes her position clear.
There’s so much to unpick and love here that Belmont University could structure a whole course around ‘Torres’. It’s wrought with haunting, high-stakes emotions, but the strength of Scott’s voice means it never feels melodramatic or plainly vulnerable. She’s steely, and equally full of wrath and hope – just the kind of singer you want guiding you through an emotional battleground.
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Director: Mackenzie Scott, Ryan McFadden
Record label: Self-released