King Princess is always at her most compelling when she does the unexpected. To date, her best songs have always felt like outliers: tongue-in-cheek anthem ‘Hit The Back’ was a surprising left-turn on ‘Cheap Queen’, King Princess’ otherwise earnest 2019 debut record of smouldering break-up songs, while the guitar-smashing anarchy of ‘Ohio’ feels like it has little in common with the ‘Tom’s Diner’ sing-song hooks of ‘Pain’. Initially, the latter was supposed to pave the way for a dance-orientated new release informed by Madonna’s ‘Erotica’ era and George Michael, but, after the release of the riff-slathered ‘House Burn Down’, that endeavour quietly fizzled out.
Instead, the Brooklyn singer/producer’s second album feels more closely aligned with ‘Cheap Queen’, melding her debut’s knack for a heartbreak slow-burner with a more experimental tilt. As Mikaela Straus has explained in her “manifesto” for the record, she’s also coming at things from a slightly different perspective this time around. “I’ve only ever written about heartbreak. It felt easier to talk about myself through other people. To write about situations that caused me pain and to use them to justify my own anxieties and depression,” she wrote. “It finally reached a point where I had to turn the barrel on myself.”
Like a number of other pop-minded artists who have plunged into examining themselves and played with classic-sounding melody-lines as of late – Billie Eilish’s ‘Happier Than Ever’ comes to mind – King Princess’ best moments on ‘Hold On Baby’ unearth a raw sense of introspection even when they’re going in hard. Gradually building up momentum in a wash of rolling Robyn-esque synths and pounding power ballad drums, album standout ‘For My Friends’ is a striking ode to platonic love (“We’ve had every fight / There is no score to keep”) while ‘Cursed’ also examines friendship atop spindling guitar lines and a thumping, distortion-muffled bridge. Bratty and pop punk-infused album closer ‘Let Us Die’ feels like this record’s closest thing to ‘Ohio’, drawing on self-destructive Thelma & Louise imagery as it grows more and more anguished.
That said, ‘Hold On Baby’ struggles with both its pacing and cohesion. The omission of strong pre-album singles ‘Only Time Makes Us Human’ and ‘House Burn Down’ – both of which tie in well to the overarching sonic palette here – feels puzzling, and a lost opportunity to gather extra momentum. Experimentation, meanwhile, often manifests itself here in the form of doubled-up vocals, stuttering flashes of sluggish electronica, wonky Regina Spektor-style piano and an affected theatrical delivery you suspect is supposed to recall Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’, but occasionally teeters over into musical show tune instead.
Though the Swift-ish ‘Change The Locks’ unearths huge promise by managing to skewer gloom and euphoria in tandem, far too much of this record trudges by in a not-especially-memorable blur. ‘Hold On Baby’’s brightest moments may be more than enough to keep the die-hard KP fans hooked, but this feels like a missed chance to offer up something truly surprising.
Release date: July 29
Record label: Zelig Records