At first listen, Regina Spektor’s music sounds fantastical, with her buoyant voice, backed by piano runs, escaping far, far away from reality. However, the listening experience is a lot like opening a little girl’s music box. The spinning, red-haired ballerina at center stage pirouettes in time with the twinkling melody, and at first the dance feels inviting and at last, eerily affecting. The music box’s whimsy masks its ability to actually influence an audience, but then its power takes hold. It’s not just fun anymore…it’s something more.
Like that music box, Spektor’s presumed flights of musical fancy are, in actuality, riddled with dangerous truths, only half-hidden by her jaunty piano chords and penchant for poppy beatboxing. When you allow yourself to listen long enough, her music’s gilded surface disintegrates and exposes her brand of lyrical realism: frankly composed vignettes with distinct attention to detail.
Begin to Hope’s ballad “Summer in the City,” describes New York City sights and sounds that perpetually trigger a case of nostalgia, of missing an ex-lover. Spektor candidly begins with “Summer in the city means cleavage, cleavage, cleavage” and continues on with “the castrated ones [who] want to feel the bulges in their pants start to rise.” Not exactly a romantic notion…but a very real one. Despite their unpleasantness, the lines “I’m so lonely, lonely, lonely / So I went to a protest just to rub up against strangers,” reveal a very deep sense of longing.
Far, Spektor’s fifth studio album, finds her tackling tougher subjects, specifically on the first single “Laughing With.” She sings, “No one’s laughing at God / When the doctor calls after some routine tests / No one’s laughing at God / When it’s gotten real late and their kid’s not back from the party yet.” However, in true, forthright Spektor fashion, she continues with “But God could be funny / At a cocktail party listening to a good God-themed joke…” The point? How quickly we turn to God in times of need but otherwise laugh in His face after a few too many dirty martinis.
Clearly, Spektor isn’t afraid to sing about the underbelly of society, the seedy parts of life, our collective hypocrisy. After all, this is the same woman who uses the word “loogie” in “The Ghost of Corporate Future.” Leave it to Spektor to tell it just like it is; the irony is that she sets her plainspoken lyrics to incredibly beautiful music.
While intensely expressive, Spektor’s songs are not necessarily autobiographical; instead, Spektor has a flair for creating fascinating characters. Like the great masters of literature, Spektor’s storytelling renders a deeper understanding of the human essence: why we fall in love, why we stop loving, why we never forget that first love. On the gorgeous “Samson” from Begin to Hope, she describes the title character as a long-haired, Wonder Bread eating “sweetest downfall.” Spektor sings, “I loved you first” in a wistful way, the way we all recall our best stupid mistake.
On “The Genius Next Door” from Far, Spektor invokes the ambiguity of urban legends with a story about an enchanted lake and the mysterious death of the title character. He is a man who lives a simple life, working in a restaurant and mostly keeping to himself. One night, he wades out to the middle of the lake and never returns, in the same form as he arrived, anyhow. Spektor never confirms if this was an accidental drowning or a suicide. So, what is the correct interpretation of the word “genius?” The door is left open for hours of analysis, most definitely on purpose.
With a quirkiness that puts her just a tad left of center, Spektor whirls inside her very own music box. Her captivating storytelling, unpredictable diction, and savvy appreciation of all of life’s sordid details always leave her listeners transfixed. You just have to let yourself listen long enough.
She said it: “I’ve always been fascinated with faith and religions. Sometimes I’m sarcastic about it, and sometimes I’m in awe. Sometimes I feel very connected, and sometimes I feel angry at it. I don’t have a stance or a manifesto about any of it, but I’m perpetually looking at it differently, like a kaleidoscope” (from The New York Times).