There’s a certain sun-burnt quality that informed “Dear Leader”, the first single released by Little Scream from her third album Speed Queen. It’s not quite in the realms of Americana, but it comes close.
For Laurel Sprengelmeyer (the Little Scream in question, for the uninitiated), that warmth the lead single provided listeners acts not as a mean of unwinding but quite the opposite. There’s a taut, purposeful tension there akin to leaning back on a chair; you try to catch yourself from falling backwards despite how comfortable you feel you are.
It’s an interesting means of introducing her latest album, Speed Queen; lyrically the multi-instrumentalist has chosen to focus on societal themes, which seem to be the theme du jour in a host of modern music. It’s for good cause.
But it’s the way Sprengelmeyer has presented her themes, even if some of the lyrics are a little heavy-handed (“A boot stepping on the face of everything I’ve ever loved” for example.) At times it has to be heavy-handed to complete the juxtaposition that allows that tension as it cuts through the soft melody.
Speed Queen focuses on the diaspora between class and poverty in the United States and the concept of privilege. Sprengelmeyer herself acknowledges her own privilege, being a “New Canadian”, and the trend of those from wealth adopting an impoverished style given its a “feeling money can’t buy.”
The pacing of the album matches that of her professed writing technique for the album. Written while touring Cult Following, the top half of the album is rooted strongly in riding melodies, as “Disco Ball” exerts a sentiment of almost being home, discussing how she sold herself to “the American dream”, once again demonstrating those contrasting dynamics.
The second half of the album becomes a little more eclectic in execution; the local spacemusic influence of “Still Life” provides a well-earned break from the nomadic moments prior as Sprengelmeyer channels moments of disco queens with one of the funkiest, riding bass lines I’ve heard this year.
It’s not the most complex of compositions but its familiarity makes it one of the standout tracks on Speed Queen – one that I have found myself returning to on numerous listens to the album.
But the album is predominantly focused on those alt.country/folk elements that you’ve come to expect from an artist on Merge Records. The album’s title track can’t be considered haunting given its powerful composition.
This is where Sprengelmeyer spreads her songwriting wings at her fullest. It’s a combination of her strengths – understated vocals, ethereal melodic flourishes, a crescendo of emotive, almost orchestral power – ends almost like a cliffhanger, leaving some waiting for that final stanza or riff.
Admittedly I’m not the biggest listener of Americana or folk music, but I was surprised how energetic the album is amidst even its most downtempo of moments. Though, as mentioned, there are moments the lyrics are quite abrupt, they play with the intimacy of the compositions themselves.
The pacing assists with those moments though and instead of something that could be misconstrued as morose and downbeat, it’s broken up by those flashes of influences away from the overall tone of the album.
Speed Queen, a title that almost belies the nature of the album itself, is a fantastic piece of social awareness also. It acknowledges the troubles that are taking place, well, everywhere it would seem.
Asides from the odd lyric in some songs the album’s true power is that Sprengelmeyer is happy to profess she herself hasn’t too much agency on these matters. After all, she is a “Privileged Child”, as the final song of the album reveals.
It’s more a musical think-piece rather than an outright call-to-arms, which inspires a lot more through reflection rather than the rallying cries of action so many others attempt.