Madeline Kenney: Perfect Shapes Album Review
“Cut Me Off,” an early standout from Perfect Shapes, the second album from art-rock songwriter Madeline Kenney, begins with an order: “Wait,” commands a mechanized voice at a crosswalk, counting down the seconds until Kenney can move. But at last, she lashes through the guitar lines that seem to have looped around her legs. “Don’t cut me off,” the North Carolina-via-West Coast singer counters, establishing rules of her own. By song’s end, she’s found her stride and momentum. “I gotta good thing going now,” she sings, backed by bright harmonies. The line is a personal affirmation, a way for Kenney to steel herself against distractions. But it also serves as a blanket statement for Kenney’s progress on Perfect Shapes, a set of 10 patiently simmering and ambitiously structured songs that offer a new image of self-assurance.
Tory Y Moi founder Chaz Bundick produced Kenney’s debut, 2017’s Night Night at the First Landing. Obscured by layers of fuzzy guitar, with her voice low in the mix, she often didn’t sound like the star of her own songs. But Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner produced all but one of the songs on Perfect Shapes, adding bass, guitar, and synthesizer. Kenney’s frayed riffs still form the backbone of these songs, rising to the top of the spiky “I Went Home,” but she surrounds them with more sophisticated melodic cascades. With Kenney’s smooth voice now at the center of these tunes, Wasner adds her touch for tastefully ornate arrangements. Fluttering saxophone parts from Wasner’s Wye Oak compatriot, Andy Stack, dapple “No Weekend” with light, shining through the spaces between Wasner’s relaxed bass and Kenney’s glistening guitar. As its stuttering beat and ascendant harmonies move over foamy synths, “The Flavor of the Fruit Tree” is effervescent.
These careful layers help frame the distance Kenney keeps from her subjects, as she balances the hyper-specific with the hyper-relatable. Kenney’s wide-angle lens makes it easy to apply her observations to one’s own life, even when these songs stem from specific people and circumstances. She opens “No Weekend” with a stanza about not getting to enjoy supposed days off for being so overextended—“I’m sorry, I can’t go out/I don’t know where my time goes/I’m in the hustle to my elbows”—before she captures the unease of being tempted by old habits. During “Cut Me Off,” when she sings “Don’t cut me off/I’m in my own time,” she’s telling, not asking. Especially in the rising gig economy, establishing personal boundaries can feel frightening, but Kenney does so with cool aplomb.
Kenney maintains an unhurried pace across Perfect Shapes, but don’t mistake her deliberate moves for any sort of lacking. “They’re calling me empty/Just because I know my own limits,” she counters during “Overhead,” setting another guideline for life. On Perfect Shapes, Kenney builds a comforting space for her own reflection and growth. It reflects a welcome boost in confidence, Kenney at last stepping onto the pedestal of her own design.