Speedy Ortiz – ‘Major Arcana’

The Massachusetts college rockers’ debut makes singer Sadie Dupuis’ destructive power struggles sound like fun

Impotent storytellers hunt for weird experiences to compensate for their inability to pick meat from the bones of the humdrum. Sadie Dupuis, singer and guitarist with Speedy Ortiz, is not one of those people – but she’s met them. “He wants to burn all my candles/No, that isn’t love/He wants a burn on his fingers/He thinks I’m the one to give it”, she sings of a manipulative dick who wants her to mark his “virgin parchment” on ‘Plough’, the penultimate track on the Massachusetts band’s ironclad, gnarled college rock debut, ‘Major Arcana’. “He wants a burn, and it’s freaking me out”.

Someone wanting her to hurt them so they have something interesting to write about freaks Dupuis out because, as ‘Major Arcana’ makes clear, she’s never had to seek out such scenarios. Her quarter-century alive has been one of morally broken power struggles in which ex-friends and fancies double-dare each other (she’s complicit, too) until they’re crippled by dependence. The poison is already in her. On this record she exercises a zit-picker’s eye for knowing exactly how to get it out.

At the lighter end of this diabolical story is ‘Casper (1995)’, a seething guitar rumble with Dupuis recounting how “kids keep trading spectre stories just to keep each other horny”. She sounds like a part-time poetry lecturer chewing on her taste for language as she brags, “The sicko police gave me perfect marks at the sycophant academy”. On ‘Tiger Tank’, Dupuis uses nihilism to laugh off attempts to leave her powerless, declaring, “Don’t even care if they break my legs/I’ve limped before, I can limp again” while the band plummet into the conniving danger best found on Slint’s ‘Spiderland’. When she asks, “Is that a challenge or something?” on ‘Hitch’ – an ode to mutual destruction – she stretches the words like chewing gum wound from tongue to finger.

These songs are about destructive bottom-feeders, but you wouldn’t know it without paying close attention to the lyric sheet. One of the reasons ‘Major Arcana’ works so well is because it’s addictive and fun, which could explain how these characters got into such a mess in the first place. The guitars and bass sound incredible, like the last Deerhunter album without the Yankee Doodle Dandy, often turning from skittish fretboard harmonics to boulder-heavy crush on a knife’s edge. ‘Fun’ comes at you from all angles like a chaotic game of dodgeball, while ‘Cash Cab’ swaggers like Sonic Youth’s ‘Kool Thing’. Only on ‘No Below’, the tale of a friendless childhood, does Dupuis sound like the fight’s been knocked out of her – but she’s not asking for your sympathy. If ‘Major Arcana’ makes one thing clear, it’s that Speedy Ortiz never expect anything less than your absolute worst – something they’re very, very good at.

Laura Snapes

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