Artists like Lissie have a hard time standing out, and it’s not for lack of talent. It’s understandable why some pop singers take on elaborate affectations like Lana Del Rey or Lady Gaga. If you are simply good at what you do, like Miguel or Carly Rae Jepsen, you’re often dependent on guest spots next to superstars or a fervent niche audience. On her fourth studio album Castles, Lissie establishes a sound that feels true to her strengths and style, if a little lacking in panache.
Lissie’s profile could be considered “under the radar,” perhaps an unfortunate consequence of her best-known work. Much of her fame has been found through collaborations with Morgan Page, starting with 2011’s oft-remixed “The Longest Road,” and later on “Don’t Give Up.” Her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way,” is lovely, frequently used over primetime medical drama montages. Her cover of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” which was subsequently sampled in ScHoolboy Q’s “Hands on the Wheel,” demonstrates how stylistically all over the map she can be. She’s even recorded a cover of Danzig’s “Mother.” As with anyone finding popularity with borrowed material, Lissie now must maneuver to prove her individual artistry.
“World Away” is a beautiful opening ballad, nicely defining her sound. She is a captivating vocalist, landing somewhere between languid and exhilarating. “Sand” and “Meet Me in the Mystery,” coolly wrapping up the album, are songs worth waiting for. They are reminiscent of “Wild West,” the song she performed on the latest season of Twin Peaks. Her husky voice is the centerpiece of both, reminiscent of the spooky, Stevie Nicks style that defined her earliest musical efforts. Unfortunately, the dark, Lynchian weirdness only rubbed off on a handful of tracks on Castles.
“Blood & Muscle” is the clearest indicator of Lissie’s songwriting skills. It is impassioned and winding, with sparse piano accompanying the heartfelt vocals. “Boyfriend” is sexy, despite a Phil Collins echo “woah” in the background. It’s an ode to her newfound simpler life in Iowa, but it’s romantic, not folky. “Love Blows” has some quirky candor to the lyrics. A dose of humor is welcome, adding some teeth to Lissie’s soft rock tendencies.
Several songs follow a well-established pop formula. “Crazy Girl” and “Best Days” are the most familiar. Despite the paint-by-number construction, her vocals are meaty enough to keep things interesting. “Feels Good” is standard complaint about a selfish guy that never gets around to a thesis deeper than, “you just do what feels good till it doesn’t.”
Overall, Castles is a strong pop album that dutifully showcases a talented singer. There are a few great songs that linger in your head, even if they don’t grab you by the collar the first time around. With this grown-up, personal album, Lissie shows she is more than an anecdotal footnote to prominent musicians. Hopefully Castles is just one milestone on a long road to increasingly authentic music.
Notable Tracks: “Blood & Muscle” | “Boyfriend” | “Meet Me in the Mystery”