Pitchfork Review: Caroline Rose ‘Loner’ – This Singer-Songwriter Uses Mordant Wit to Confront Serious Subjects
On her self-assured second album, this singer-songwriter uses her mordant wit to confront serious subjects, exorcising trauma with hooks and humor.
“Sarcasm is hard to get through in music,” Caroline Rose lamented in a recent interview with Rookie. “Especially if you’re making pop songs, and you’re singing about something that’s pretty serious.” Rose, a singer-songwriter from New York with a penchant for cherry-colored tracksuits, certainly likes serious subjects: Her second album, LONER, is full of songs about misogyny, self-doubt, disillusionment, and death, each confronted with unflinching candor. But it’s Rose’s mordant wit that makes those songs work—and Rose is very funny. “I go to a friend of a friend’s party,” she sings, martini-dry, on “More of the Same.” “Everyone’s well-dressed with a perfect body/And they all have alternative haircuts and straight white teeth/But all I see is just more of the same thing.” Sarcasm might be hard for other songwriters, but not for her.
There’s a constructive quality to Rose’s sense of humor: It affords her the room to exorcise trauma in a playful spirit. “Cry!,” a full-throated power-pop jam built around bass synths and pedal-steel guitar, wallows in the gross invective hurled at women near-daily while implicitly mocking the retrograde attitudes behind it: “You’re gonna cry, little, little girl!” Rose sneers. “You silly thing/You will learn your place yet.” Its counterpart, “Smile! AKA Schizodrift Jam 1 AKA Bikini Intro,” is a caustic minute-long fuck-you to every strange man who has commanded a woman in the street to do just that. The rock-depth low spirits of “Getting to Me,” a painfully relatable song about loneliness, culminate in a resigned sigh that’s bitterly hilarious in its understatement: “I think it might be getting to me,” she sings, oddly upbeat. “I think it might be finally getting to me.”
Musically, Rose has no less fun than she does with the content of her lyrics. “I’d say this album was as much inspired by Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears as it was late-’70s punk,” she declares in LONER’s press materials. These are references that some artists might put on for effect—many musicians like to seem omnivorous, even if that range doesn’t manifest in the actual music. But Rose’s tastes really are that comprehensive. LONER spans squawky rockabilly (“Money”), sleepy trip-hop (“To Die Today”), and what Rose herself describes, unimprovably, as her “riot grrrl feminist surf-punk anthem” (“Bikini”). Sometimes she sounds a little like other super-charged fast-talkers, like St. Vincent or Eleanor Friedberger; sometimes she has the exuberant swagger of, say, Craig Finn. And, as promised, she even channels JT, on the distinctly FutureSex-esque “Animal.”
LONER may come as a surprise to admirers of Rose’s previous album, 2014’s I Will Not Be Afraid. A front-to-back collection of alt-country and blues, all whisky-soaked wails and Americana twang, it sounded pretty much like what you’d expect of a record whose first song bears the title “Blood on Your Bootheels”—not a bad debut by any means, but in truth only moderately promising. So what happened? Rose has described her evolution between the two albums as a matter of finding the right sound to match her personality. That sense of discovery is evident not only in the wide spectrum of styles she adopts here, but in the certainty with which she adopts them. LONER is a singular artistic statement, from its unforgettable album art all the way down. It represents for her a major change—a change she totally commands.
If Rose has located her voice, she remains as lost as the rest of us when it comes to the big questions. “The world don’t stop/Even when you’re living in color,” she croons on “Jeannie Becomes a Mom,” awash in a rinse of synths. “No, the world don’t stop/Time is only gonna pass you by.” It’s a fairly wretched sentiment articulated with surprising cheer, as is Rose’s wont. “Every so often I’ll have bouts of pretty bad anxiety, where it feels like I’m running out of time,” she has explained of the song. “It makes me think about my goals, that no matter how many dreams I fulfill I’m never going to be able to outrun time or my often rude reality.” Well, none of us really will—that’s life. But in committing these anxieties to tape with such wit and good humor, in speaking for everyone who experiences similar problems on their own, she’s made reality a little bit easier to handle.