As with our previous Madeline Rust review, I should open with a disclaimer. I know the members of this band. Two of them are Reprobate contributors. My rule of thumb in these situations is simple – if I don’t like what they are doing, I simply won’t review it. The fact that I have reviewed it should be taken as a sign that I genuinely, unbiasedly think that this is a worthy project.
The previous Madeline Rust LP, Truth or Consequences, was a remarkable debut, even though it wasn’t actually a debut – there seems to be a wide consensus that we don’t talk about their first, digital-only album. ToC was a dark, conceptual piece about serial killers and their victims, we were hugely impressed with the mood, the music and the cohesive potency of the project.
21 Girls is the follow-up, and very much a sequel to the last album. The themes are much the same – American nightmares of murder and madness, seen through the eyes of both killers and victims, and offering an emotional insight into how both might be thinking. Indeed, we suggest you pause now and read our review of that album so we don’t have to repeat our rants about the state of the (British, particularly) music industry, the lack of musical imagination and the cinematic, noir-driven uniqueness of what The Madeline Rust are doing, because otherwise we’ll just have to repeat all that here. Go on… we can wait.
Back with us? Good. Let’s begin.
21 Girls, as you hold it in your hands, immediately feels a very different beast from the first album. The vibrant gatefold sleeve, with its images of murder-victim faces, interwoven together to create a single, not-quite-right whole and the solarised desert landscapes give the album an automatic intensity and substantial feel that intrigues; the blue vinyl fits nicely with the visual style as well (and yes, you get a download code for those of you who are vinylphobic). But it’s not really about the packaging, is it? The outer gloss can be as slick as you want, but ultimately, the music has to deliver.
Thankfully, The Madeline Rust has not suddenly lost its touch. For those who bought the previous album, this will feel comfortingly familiar – though not quite the same. For a start, the band has become fleshed out since recording Truth or Consequences, with the addition of New Guitarist (as he is destined to be forever known) Gerallt Ruggiero, and his presence helps give the band a more expansive, powerful sound. The addition of some backing vocalists and string musicians also beef things up, and the production this time seems more confident and assured. The result is an altogether heavier sound – though as before, the band knows how to balance light and shade, even within a single song.
The sense of familiarity is heightened by opener Zooey, which really is familiar for anyone who has seen the band play live over the last year. It’s also the longest song here, clocking in at around seven minutes, and suggests a growing confidence in the willingness to explore the dark subject matter in more depth. As with the last album, these new songs don’t spoon feed you details of any particular case – it’s generally left up to you to decipher which crimes and which victims might have inspired these songs, should you feel the need. My listening notes suggestion: don’t bother. The whole idea of this album – as the cover suggests – it that these are everyone’s stories. The 21 Girls are all the girls who fell victim to the hands of psychotic killers. And the killers are all the same victim too, damaged by bad childhoods and bad thoughts left unchecked for too long.
Zooey builds slowly, ominously, from a slow start to a howling finale, Lucy Morrow’s vocals tearing and ripping with emotional intensity. As a starting point for the album, it could hardly be bettered. And for the most part, the rest of the LP continues along a similar, impressively raw way. These are not songs of celebration, and they are not traditional murder ballads – instead, they are desperate cries of pain and sorrow, where everyone is a victim.
But stop: I fear I might be making this album sound like a grim, unbearably depressing experience – the Tonight’s The Night or The Final Cut of serial killer songs. That’s not the case. This is emotional, lyrically dark stuff, true, but it has a musical power and melodic sense that ensures that it doesn’t become wrist-slitting stuff. At times, some of the songs could even pass for regular love songs, if you don’t delve into the lyrics too closely.
A definite highlight is Inside, a song that seems to encompass everything that the band is about – elements of dark country music and pounding rock colliding, a cinematic sweep that somehow works perfectly with the intimate, utterly bleak subject matter, a growing sense of depth and power. It’s a genuinely epic piece. In an ideal world, the band would be performing this at the end of a Twin Peaks episode. Almost as impressive is the swirling, bad trip of Too Late, as dark a piece of music as you could hope to hear.
As for the rest of the songs – Julia’s Love is a moody, swirling and ultimately thundering epic that perhaps feels musically the closest to what we might expect from a murder ballad; Beat the Night could almost be a fist-pumping rock anthem if you ignore the references to suicide; Anna is a grooving, haunting affair complete with a twisting guitar solo and a vaguely apocalyptic vibe.
There’s one hiccup (and what better than a perfect LP with one little flaw to poke at?). Images of Donna just doesn’t grab me – it feels too much like an overly artful and overly upbeat indie rock song from the early 1990s for my tastes. It might be fine elsewhere, but atmospherically, it just doesn’t fit here. You might make a similar criticism of the pounding punk number Stop Your Heart, but I’d argue that this track fits in with the album much more effectively, even if it’s a crowd-pleasing anthem and probable show closer. It’s also a great enough track to stand on its own.
The album ends with Holes in the Sand, which makes sense of the album title and takes things to a new level of darkness, as Morrow works through a list of murder victims – some of them names we’ve already encountered in other songs – who are “in the sand”. It’s a simple concept, but as dark a piece of music as I think I’ve ever heard, and perhaps is a fitting coda to the band’s tales of murder – while I imagine that there are many more serial killer vignettes to explore, and have no doubt that the band could do so with aplomb, perhaps they might want to move on to other areas in the future. If that’s the case, this song wraps things up impressively, and 21 Girls as a whole proves to be an essential, powerful and often devastating companion piece to Truth or Consequences. You’ll struggle to find a better release this year.