The last two years have been big for female singers, but not especially fruitful ones, cresting with last November’s release of The Fame Monster and bottoming out with the mediocre imitation that has ensued. It seems almost fitting that Katy Perry’s latest blundering, witless abomination comes at the same time as the U.S. release of Jenny Wilson’s latest album, which eschews all of pop’s current preoccupations for its own bold rewriting of R&B tropes. Beyond its initial reticence, a few listens to Hardships! reveals a work that’s incessantly catchy and defiantly original.
The album is refreshing for a variety of reasons, both for the change of pace its gimmick-free, startlingly organic production provides, and as a smashing success that comes out of nowhere. Wilson is signed to the Knife’s record label, did guest work on some of their songs, and has prior experience as a member of First Floor Power, but her first solo album garnered little attention. There’s been equally shy notice for this one; the Internet seems quiet aside from one troglodytic review (which opens with “Jenny Wilson is friggin’ weird” and only gets worse from there), a sad fact considering the album came out 18 months ago in Europe. For an album of this caliber to slip by unnoticed should be a crime.
The murky beginning of opener of “The Path” is one of those queasy moments that seems to suggest an album full of dry, calculated material, with a spoken-word intro that feels rickety and almost too odd. But Wilson soon proves her ability for soulful, idiosyncratic pop. A chorus of bird cries functions as a figurative sunrise, bursting into a cornucopia of weird voices, stutter-stop beats, and boneyard xylophone. These aesthetic hallmarks, particularly the uneasy plink of the xylophone, come to define the album, which has a sustained production style to match Wilson’s impressive presence.
The singer’s influences are discrete enough to hint at the past while sounding nothing like any specific artist. There are nods to Nina Simone, mostly through the brassy power of Wilson’s voice, as well to as such disparate sources as ‘90s hip-hop and Tom Waits’s Bone Machine. Great moments include “Only Here for the Fight,” which pits Wilson against herself via dueling, multitracked vocals, and the swooping strings of the title track.
Spanning 13 very different songs with hardly any missteps, Hardships! is a defiant statement and one of the best albums to be released this year, despite the fact that it technically comes from 2009. Whatever the context, it works masterfully on several levels, as pure pop, intelligent songcraft, and atmospheric antidote. It’s a smart, winning effort that deserves far more attention than it has received.