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Kimbra has one of those sorta unfair pop stories. After lending her vocals to Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” — a song that became ubiquitous in late 2011 and all through 2012 — the New Zealand pop singer’s entire oeuvre has been seen through the lens of that undeniable earworm. It earned her Grammys, accolades, and radio cred, but from the sounds of the two albums she’s put out since, 2014’s The Golden Echo and the just-released Primal Heart, external validation from the industry is far from her own personal goal as a musician. I’ve had her latest album on repeat since it came out a couple weeks ago, and all I can surmise is that it is a record out of its time — which makes it all the more precious to me.
When I spoke to the pop auteur for Consequence Of Sound back in her 2014 era, the singer-songwriter explained her process with music, not as someone who sees it as an industry at all, but as one of the first languages that felt viable to her. “Music is a language, and it comes to some people in time, and some people are speaking it from the word go,” she told me back then. “Melody and poetry were always strong parts of my childhood. They weren’t thought about. They were just ways of expressing myself.”
On her latest album, Primal Heart, which came out late last month, that throughline of melody and poetry is even more front and center, and even the album title indicates how instinctual and natural the music is to her. This record feels beyond rare for a mainstream pop album in 2018; there’s no special hotly-tipped producer dragged in as a big name, there’s no gimmick or strange album rollout, there’s no remixes or hip-hop features — in fact, there’s not a single feature on the entire record. In a pop era where every hit feels like a jumble of two pop stars or more, the album is refreshingly straightforward and utterly weird, and it shines because of those very factors.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t fascinating collaborators sprinkled throughout Primal Heart, which was slated for release earlier this year and suffered the dreaded push back to late April. (Kimbra softened that blow with an initial release of “Hi Def Romance” from the album sessions, a sultry, jittery track full of the same surging energy that made the album, but maybe a bit darker.) Co-writers like Skrillex, Robin Hannibal (Rhye), and Natasha Bedingfield all crop up across Primal Heart, and it’s almost entirely co-produced by Kimbra herself and John Congleton, who has worked extensively with St. Vincent on her early albums, along with plenty of other musicians.
The real heart of this record is arguably the final track, “Real Life,” the sole song that is solely produced by Kimbra. An autotuned, somber number, the drizzling chorus spills out while her vocals feed through vocoders and a host of harmonies jump up to join her like a choir on a stereo where a child is messing with the volume. The song is a call to arms, not regret, but it parses the very intense binary between the performing world, music, and the lived experience of an artist as a person. It draws inspiration from Imogen Heap and Yeezus in equal measure, and it caps off an album of much more intricate, elegant work, but the naked introspection here points toward Kimbra’s unrelenting desire to experiment in her music.
Reading Primal Heart through this lens, it’s hard not to see every single song as a mutation in a different direction, and imagine that every song from these sessions wormed their way outward, in other directions. This isn’t the sleek, nine-song pop album with a celebrity narrative and clear storyline arc that usually breaks free into the realm of instant classic. Instead, it’s messy and adventurous, without a connection to any pop culture reality about Kimbra’s life. It’s just funky, technicolor pop music without an anchor in real life — because she already gives us that at the very end. It’s a tradeoff, and one that works beautifully if you’re willing to give the album the time it deserves.
Kicking off with the double punch “The Good War” and “Top Of The World,” Kimbra sets the tone for Primal Heart, warm, cloying rhythms and ecstatic, elastic peaks and valleys that don’t quite fall into the realm of hooks, but spike the songs with moments of excitement and accompanying lulls. The stunning “Like They Do On TV” pokes at our culture’s obsession with TV as reality, and its confetti-hit chorus is the kind of hook that would sound incredible soundtracking a momentous occasion on Gossip Girl or The OC. Followed up by the heartbreaking, hopeful lilt of “Recovery,” a song that treats breakup as addiction, Kimbra further shows just how far she can stretch her own palette as a musician.
For some, the many sides of this album may be a lot to process, but as a listener who is sick to death of same-sounding, radio-manufactured pop, the diversity is welcome, and one of the album’s biggest appeals. “Lightyears” is another sparkle-spattered celebratory jam that seeks happiness in a different universe and time, while the echoing “Black Sky” finds contentment in the here and now. Moving into a more somber direction on “Past Love” and “Version Of Me,” these backward-looking slow jams hint at what’s coming in the album’s final capstone moment, “Real Life.”
Primal Heart is an example — perhaps one of the last — of a pop artist chasing down her own vision in music, without kowtowing to radio trends, popular guest stars, or bleeding the storyline of her own life out into the promo cycle. As someone who actively enjoys all three of those aspects when they come, I’m also firmly in the camp that a pop weirdo like Kimbra is necessary for the balance of the musical ecosystem, putting her ideas out into the ether as her own form of language, and seeing what comes back in later translations. Regardless, this is one of the most fascinating and inventive pop albums of the year, and well worth immersing yourself in. Listen below.
Primal Heart is out now via Warner Bros Records. Get it here.