On each new album, Regina Spektor has suppressed more and more of the art-punk sensibility that made her early brand of cabaret-inspired pop so captivating. Accessibility isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but 2009's middling Far simply lost too much of Spektor's unique POV, and the singer-songwriter went from being an acquired taste to being flavorless. Thankfully, Spektor reverses course on What We Saw from the Cheap Seats, striking a carefully controlled balance between radio-ready pop and some bizarre, gleefully oddball flourishes.
That sense of balance is critical to Spektor's work: As with most "quirky" girls, the distinction between whimsical and obnoxious comes down to individual taste and tolerance. Gasping for air like she has the bends between almost every line on "Open" doesn't connect to the song's narrative or other production choices in any meaningful way, so the vocal tic only serves to draw attention to itself as being weird for the sake of being weird. But the majority of Spektor's deliberately affected choices (the dramatic tempo changes on "Small Town Moon," the faux beatboxing on "All the Rowboats") work in context over the course of What We Saw. The album finds Spektor taking gutsier and more frequent risks than she has in years, and she explores that creativity with a real sense of purpose and control.
Spektor has had ample time to refine the set's songs, many of which have been staples of her live shows for the better part of a decade. "Don't Leave Me" is even a repurposed version of "Ne Me Quitte Pas" from 2002's Songs, with the spare piano ballad given a big-band treatment. In the album's finest moments, Spektor's songwriting impresses for its fearlessness: It's hard to imagine another artist with the balls to steal the chorus of Nina Simone's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" for "Oh, Marcello" and sing it straight-faced as though she'd written it herself, and "Ballad of a Politician" packs a damning indictment of corrupted power into just a few scant lines.
Spektor's syntax has always been a bit off-kilter, and that's still true here, but there's no faulting the power or simple profundity of a line like "Everyone knows that you're going to love/Though there's still no cure for the crying" on the standout ballad "Firewood." At her best, Spektor tempers her theatrics with a deep-seated empathy. Beneath the yelps, gasps, and exaggerated accents, she's a romantic, and What We Saw is her most deeply felt, resonant work to date.