Aspiring Oregon-based songstress Alexandra Savior, first noticed for her song “Risk”, which featured in the second series of US crime serial True Detective, was well on the way to stardom when her profile rose exponentially after falling under the wing of indie-rock favourite and hair gel enthusiast Alex Turner, of the Sheffield-based Arctic Monkeys. Together with Monkeys collaborator James Ford and Mini Mansions bassist Zach Dawes, this group of industry talent helped Savior to create Belladonna of Sadness, her first full-length album, which was released on April 7.
The first song to be released from the album, “Shades”, dropped midway through 2016 and gave an idea of Alexandra’s still-developing sound. Carried along by a sulky minor-key bassline and echoed, lo-fi percussion, “Shades” details the scene of a morning after – “I sorta wish that it was raining, so I could pull the hood up on my coat / I’m always happy to be leaving, could be the company I’m keeping”, and features gorgeous vocals, ranging from a modest, inward murmur to a seductive, high-register trill. Multiple follow-up singles further showcased Savior’s burgeoning vocal talent, and many of the songs from Belladonna of Sadness appeared online before its full release, in fan-shot live footage.
Instrumentally, Belladonna of Sadness takes its cues from cinematic, louche jazz-pop of the 1960s, defined by woozy organs, slapback-heavy guitar leads, and xylophone twinkles. This sound, heard extensively on The Last Shadow Puppets’ previous album, sets a tone that’s soaked in invocations of Sunset Boulevard glamour and film noir intrigue, but never overpowers the lead vocals; melodic phrases are occasionally matched by the organs, and flights of instrumentality only take place in the brief vacancies between choruses and verses, such as the wistful slide guitar solo in “Girlie”, or the lilting, keyboard-led walk in the latter section of “Vanishing Point”.
“…the album’s cinematic edge never comes through clearer than in the album’s last few minutes, and it’s a remarkable feature, especially for a debut”
It’s clear from the beginning that the album strives to highlight and elevate Savior’s vocals, and the result works only to her advantage – Savior’s voice contains suggestive traces of Dusty Springfield, Marilyn Monroe, and a dozen more starlets from the female crooner’s golden era, but sets herself apart with a modern sensibility, rising from delicate, measured delivery to a soaring, defiant wail, sometimes within the space of a single tune. Opener “Mirage” makes Savior’s voice sound close and intimate, clarifying nuances in lines like “dress me like the front of a casino, push me down another rabbit hole / Touch me like I’m gonna turn to gold”, and her voice is put to equally good use in “Girlie”, a delicate, melodic number about a showbiz girl who’s “always looking for a wilder ride, and she’ll be f*cking with the phone all night”.
Alexandra’s most biting, intense performances come through on songs like “M.T.M.E.” (“Music To My Ears”), where she sings with the passion of a jilted lover, lines like “I ain’t crying, I’m just fine”, and the closing song “Mystery Girl”, which confronts a suspected infidelity with “pardon me, baby – but who’s the mystery girl?”. The song descends into a swirling, house-of-horror melee of keyboards and howled backing vocals, as Alexandra declares “don’t you try to calm me down”; the album’s cinematic edge never comes through clearer than in the album’s last few minutes, and it’s a remarkable feature, especially for a debut, which sometimes feels like it should’ve been directed as well as produced.
One modest concern with Belladonna is the extent of Turner’s creative impact as co-writer – Savior herself has said that her fondness doesn’t extend to all of the Arctic Monkeys’ singer’s lyrics, and one is left to wonder how different the project would be had she been left to her own devices. Anyone at all familiar with Turner’s oeuvre may pick up on a few of his lyrical cues here and there – “spectacularly backlight poster neon sky, to which the sun so quickly unsubscribes” from “Vanishing Point” could easily have fitted into the wry, referential lyrics of 2011’s Suck It And See – but there’s little to suggest that, with her talent highlighted, Savior may enjoy more creative freedom in her next effort. It’s rare that a debut album comes as fully-realised as this, yet is still able to showcase such a degree of talented performance. Dream-pop may have found its saviour.
Josh Will Eden