Violence is a hook on 101, Keren Ann’s first new album in four years, which attempts to recast the singer as a fiercer, more forceful presence. This works well on opener “My Name Is Trouble,” which is teasingly assertive while still hewing to her usual subtlety, but rings false elsewhere, namely on cabaret-style tracks like “Blood on my Hands,” which clumsily details the usually sweet singer murdering her audience.
This swerve into gangster imagery is jarring, mainly because it’s so inexplicably strained. It also signals subtle changes that work toward diminishing Keren Ann’s appeal, verging on an obviousness that robs the music of its usual refinement. Even the opener contains intimations of this shift. Its minimalist, quiet dance beat is still an understated touch, but it feels like a submission to commonplace pop strictures for a singer whose best material has always been ethereal and expansive.
It’s partially because Keren Ann has made such a resource of restraint that the cooing, gritty femme-fatale act pursued here seems contrary to her strengths. On recent work like her gorgeous self-titled album, the songs congealed into a seamless, natural product, both complex and effortless at the same time. The seams of this attempt at reinvention, however, are all too obvious, studded with put-upon sexuality and gangster-moll signifiers. The quiet songs, which occupy her usual métier, by contrast seem limited and at times stifled.
It’s a testament to Keren Ann’s innate skill that most of this material still works despite its clunkiness. Even “Blood on my Hands,” while undeniably cartoonish, is sneakily catchy and smart. “Run with You,” with its multi-tracked vocal crawl and hovering electronics, is ghostly and evocative despite its smallness. Yet all the problems present on 101 seem to collect on the closing title track, a tedious countdown that tosses off informational detritus (“78 revolutions per minute/77 developing nations/76 trombones”) beneath a lurching string progression, ending with the breathy mention of “one god.” It’s a strained capper for an album that’s strangely and unnecessarily high-concept.