Near the end of “Everything To Me,” the first song on the new Empress Of album Us, we hear the featherlight voice of Devonté Hynes, doing that Prince-style deeply intoned spoken-word thing that he sometimes does. When Hynes shows up, it’s a genuine surprise. Of course, Us is an album that straddles the line between DIY indie and mainstream pop. On albums like that, you almost expect Hynes to show up. That is his corner, and he’s never not working. This time, though, it’s a surprise, and it’s a surprise because Empress Of has always been a one-woman show.
Empress Of is Lorely Rodriguez, a California-born singer and producer. Three years ago, she released a stirring and open-hearted album called Me, and that album was literally all her. She wrote all the songs, produced them, and engineered them. The only voice we heard on the album was hers. Every instrument we heard was her, as well. (There were a couple of moments where she brought someone in to play drums and then sampled those drums, but that was it.) So when Hynes shows up on “Everything To Me,” it’s notable. It’s the first sign that Rodriguez is opening her project up, relinquishing control, and letting other people find their way onto her record.
In the three years since Me, Rodriguez has begun a new life as a collaborator — on other people’s records, if not on her own. We’ve heard her voice on tracks from people like Blood Orange and DJDS. A couple of years ago at the Pitchfork Festival, I saw Rodriguez step onto Hynes’ stage with him. And now all that collaboration is coming home to her own project. She marks the change with the album title: Us rather than Me. But that Us doesn’t just refer to the people — Hynes, DJDS, the Spanish producer Pional — who co-produced tracks on the album with Rodriguez. It also refers to the necessary, frustrating, soul-sustaining give-and-take of being in a relationship, of living with someone else. Us is an album about sharing your space and asserting yourself — about figuring out how to be with someone.
In interviews, Rodriguez has said that she wanted to make something that wasn’t so heavy and personal. As someone who loves pop music, she wanted her new record to be lighter and sunnier, something that wouldn’t present an emotional challenge to sing every night. And there is a new lightness in Us. The beats step a little harder, and the synths beam a little brighter. But this is still an album of hard and specific relationship songs, songs that ring true because they don’t take any shortcuts.
When Rodriguez sings about falling in love, she doesn’t use vague terms, and she doesn’t name her feelings. Instead, she does it through images and vignettes. On one song, she and the object of her infatuation are sitting outside together in the rain, getting soaked but not wanting to leave the magical little bubble that they’ve created together: “Clothes is sticking to my skin / I’ll be sick all the weekend.” On another, she’s marveling at how, after some time together, everything still feels like new: “I memorized your voice, say every single phrase / We never grew out of that too-much-PDA.”
And when Rodriguez sings about relationship problems, she does it with that same granular focus: “We had too much to drink / Forgot that we overthink,” “Baby, why are we fighting in the car?” Sometimes, she puts us right in the middle of those disputes, singing things to us that she might say to someone in real life: “I hate a compliment / When it don’t make any sense / When it don’t have sustenance / Don’t tell me more.” Sometimes, she switches back and forth between Spanish and English, and that feels just as specific and lived-in. It’s that funny songwriting paradox: The more specific the lyrics are to one particular person’s experience, the more universal they become.
As a singer, Rodriguez is gifted and versatile, and she can convey a whole lot of emotion in one little mid-syllable dip. But she holds back. She keeps her voice as blank and matter-of-fact as she can, so when hurt or yearning does creep into her voice, it means more. She’s got a sharp rhythmic intelligence, keeping her voice in the pockets of these beats that she co-crafted. (And a lot of those beats are great, too, skittering and pulsing in small and satisfying ways.) Rodriguez doubles that voice up when necessary, giving her already strong hooks an extra push that always helps.
But Rodriguez never operates as a straight-up pop singer, even when she’s on other people’s records. Her music, catchy as it often is, remains homespun and personal. It’s not take-over-the-world music. It’s music written from a given place and time, from a given perspective. If you’re in a similar kind of situation as the one she’s describing, or if you can remember that feeling, that music can really land. Because even when Rodriguez is working with other people’s voices and sounds, she’s always very much herself.
Us is out 10/19 on Terrible Records.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Neneh Cherry’s icily rippling Four Tet collaboration Broken Politics.
• Cloud Nothings’ commendably scrappy rocker Last Building Burning.
• How To Dress Well’s internal R&B journey The Anteroom.
• John Carpenter’s score for the new Halloween sequel.
• Farao’s sex-deconstructing synthpopper Pure-O.
• DJ Muggs and Roc Marciano’s full-length team-up Kaos.
• Geotic’s gooey downbeat instrumental Traversa.
• Peter Bjorn And John’s tripartite power-popper Darker Days.
• Will Oldham’s old-songs-re-recorded lark Songs Of Love And Horror.
• Doe Paoro’s soulful, melodic Soft Power.
• Yoko Ono’s back-pages reinvestigation Warzone.
• Buxton’s dreamy, psychedelic Stay Out Late.
• Soft Center’s energetic, bittersweet No Pattern.
• MØ’s sparkling pop collection Forever Neverland.
• Weakened Friends’ contemplative indie rocker Common Blah.
• Modern Baseball side project Steady Hands’ wooly debut Truth In Comedy.
• Papercuts’ twinkling roots-rocker Parallel Universe Blues.
• Former Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft’s latest solo venture Natural Rebel.
• Fort Romeau’s SPC-140 EP.
• Minus The Bear’s Fair Enough EP.
• Moaning Lisa’s Do You Know Enough? EP.