Words About Music
English vocalist Marika Hackman has spent the past few years gradually building a critical and commercial following with her brand of alternative folk music. Her debut album, 2015’s “We Slept at Last,” was well received, although it flew past my radar. In fact, Marika Hackman’s name wasn’t one I came across until I checked out the latest alt-J album, “RELAXER,” which features Hackman’s vocals on one of the record’s best songs. When I saw that she had been signed to Sub Pop for the release of her sophomore LP, “I’m Not Your Man,” I knew I had to check out what her music was all about. With 15 tracks clocking in at nearly an hour, I sincerely hoped I wouldn’t be in for a situation where the quantity of tracks overshadowed the music itself. I also hoped Hackman would be able to stretch her formula out for that period of time with solid lyricism, great instrumentation, and memorable hooks.
Right off the bat, Marika definitely comes through with some curious lyricism. “Boyfriend” kicks the album off with some sharp commentary about gender and sexuality. I’m not sure if Marika is a lesbian or bisexual woman, but she is open about her same-sex leanings, especially on this first track, where she mocks the commonly held positions of implicit homophobia and sexism which affect same-sex relationships between women. She pokes fun at the assertion that two women can’t have a fulfilling sexual experience or relationship, and she does it atop some quirky alt-rock instrumentation, in her sour English deadpan. While I don’t think she has the strongest or most memorable vocal presence, I do think this is a really great song which sets the stage for Marika to explain who she is and what she’s about.
The next track, “Good Intentions,” is about the mindset one gets in when they are depressed or angry, and how it can get so bad that even when someone cares enough to ask how you’re doing and if everything’s okay, that feels annoying and pushy. Despite the good intentions of whoever it is she’s talking about (although it’s probably pointed at society at large), Marika sings over a moody mid-grunge instrumental about “sens[ing] your bullshit from my bedroom/It’s driving me mad, I’m not sad.” I think, so far, Marika is doing a great job of bringing some fascinating lyricism to some great instrumentation to result in a solid combination of sound and substance. The heavy drums and distorted guitars are a really nice touch, as Hackman’s involvement with Laura Marling had me worried this would sound like just another Laura Marling knockoff.
She slows down the tempo for the moody “Gina’s World,” a yearning song about who I can only imagine is a close friend or former lover (or both) for Marika. This song features some fantastic vocal layering on the bridge, as well as some soft ambient swells in the guitar-work. This track sort of reminds me of Feist’s latest album, “Pleasure.” I love the song more and more as it continues, especially with the relatable simplicity of the line “And it’s so hard to be good/But it’s so good when it’s good” and the somber finality of its closing line: “Gina’s on the news/How did she get there? I’m so confused/And I am at my house, with my tears in my mouth.”
The next track, “My Lover Cindy,” has more of a jangle pop feel to it. It’s about the beginning, honeymoon phase of a relationship where commitment seems scary but you still want to spend all your time with that person. While I am not quite as into the lyrics on these songs as I am the previous one, I still think the arrangement and sonic structure of this particular track is to be respected and adored. The backing vocals, the building instrumentation, the way her and her band toy with loud-quiet dynamics; I very much enjoy the sound of this track, even if the rest of it sort of falls flat in comparison.
“Round We Go” also has sort of a curious message to it, with lyrics that seem to connote the feelings of bitterness which build when trying to bottle up negative feelings in public where it might be considered inappropriate to talk back to someone that’s being rude to you. I think this song might be about the music business in a way, whether Marika feels the need to hold her tongue when dealing with executives, music critics, or fans. Again, she continues to find interesting ways to write about topics that have been dealt with before. I think I feel the opposite way about “Round We Go” of how I feel about “My Lover Cindy,” where I think the lyrics are fantastic but the instrumentation leaves a bit to be desired.
“Violet” is also a pretty weird song; simultaneously, it’s physical and visceral. Marika sings about an ex-girlfriend and how obsessed she was with her mouth. Hell, the chorus of this song is literally “I love your mouth.” Like the previous songs, we get a fairly eclectic style of alternative rock here, with numerous layers of guitar chords and drum beats building and breaking throughout the track. It’s beginning to seem like there’s a formula here, but it’s not the world’s worst formula, especially because she does change it up enough throughout that there’s some nice variation in the mix here.
One of the album’s best songs, though, is one of its most minimal. “Cigarette” is more akin to Marika’s previous music, featuring just her and some intricate guitar strumming. It’s an indie folk song for the ages, and quite an evocative breakup track to boot. It serves as a great midpoint for the album, especially considering its abbreviated length, and includes some soft ambient sounds to add some more sonic texture to the end of the track.
“Time’s Been Reckless” has a great, catchy beat to it, but I’m kind of sick of hooks that feature people counting “1-2-3-4” and rhyming something with “4,” then singing “5-6-7-8” and doing the same. I like the other lyrics on this song, and I like the way it sounds when the hook kicks in, but it seems like a bit of a lazy hook in comparison. Despite this, I continue to like the consistently unique ways Marika sings about love, relationships, and queerness, whether she’s breaking the stereotype of women having higher standards for sexual intercourse than men or she’s revolutionizing rock music with her openly fluid sexuality.
Some Ennio Morricone-esque spaghetti western whistling kicks off the next track, “Apple Tree,” a somewhat defeatist anthem about how tiresome it can be to, well, work. I know Marika is singing about her particular line of work, but I think the message of this song can be universally applied to anyone who does exhausting labor, whether it’s manual, retail, customer service, or being in the strange position of mid-tier English folk rock musician. She realizes people’s expectations of her, and she realizes she could be dropped into obscurity faster than you could say “PWR BTTM.” I love the vibe of this track as well as its lyrics, and I think it’s pleasing to see that the good songs keep coming as we get deeper and deeper into this fairly long tracklist.
I think the formula wears a bit thin again on “So Long,” which has a driving bass line but lacks the fascinating lyrics of the previous songs. I’m also not as in love with the specific instrumental qualities of this track as I am with others, not that this is a bad song, just as it’s not as exciting to me as others on here. It represents some of the fat Marika could have definitely trimmed when putting this record together. I feel similarly about “Eastbound Train,” which has a propelling folksiness to it that is undeniable, but it ultimately falls flat in comparison to the tracklist’s high points.
I like the confident pretentiousness of “Blahblahblah,” though, with its cynical lyrics about the way people allow their technology to rule over their lives. I don’t fully agree with its message, because I think the Internet and accessibility to it is an important tool, but I think Marika and I would agree that the message of this song can also be applied to systemic oppression, which people continuously ignore despite all available evidence at their disposal in their pockets. I also think the line “I could try to emulate the brain-dead/But I get sick and tired of listening to the radio” could be used to mock both the sound of mainstream music (which I’m lukewarm about as a message) as well as the sound of mainstream news and pro-capitalist/pseudo-fascist talk radio.
“I’d Rather Be With Them” sounds like a spiritual sequel to “Cigarette,” with its plaintive strings and acoustic folk, as well as its sad lyrics that seem to document the aftermath of a fight or a breakup within a relationship. I like Marika’s intense vocal performance here, as well as the way the track is embellished with Kirsty Mangan’s beautiful strings. Weirdly enough, this song sort of reminds me of Elliott Smith, with its bitter lyrics and layered vocals. I think it features more fucks than any other song on this album, too, giving us a bit of that classic British vulgarity. Someone call Jason Williamson and tell him to look up profanity in the dictionary.
I kid. “I’d Rather Be With Them” is an excellent song, and probably my favorite in the album’s second half. Also a pretty decent song is the slow-building “AM,” which once again fulfills Marika’s oral fixation. I feel like her and I have the same taste in women, based purely on what I can surmise from this album’s lyricism. I also feel like Marika is extremely talented with her songwriting, because even the songs I don’t like as much are certainly not songs I think are worthy of hatred.
“Majesty,” the final song, is a pretty song with a good melody, but I don’t think it makes the strongest closing track. The more I think about it, the more that “I’m Not Your Man” sounds like sort of a haphazard compilation, or perhaps three separate EPs mish-mashed together to create a second LP. There’s a lot to love about it, but ultimately I think I fall short of loving it because it doesn’t justify its length and it doesn’t have the best flow to it.
Marika Hackman is clearly a brilliant singer/songwriter and knows how to put a fantastic song together. But, “I’m Not Your Man” unfortunately doesn’t always come through with consistently great material. There’s a lot that is great, but there’s a decent amount that stands as forgettable and unnecessary. I bet if this was just the album’s 10 best songs, we’d be looking at a completely different review here, but as it stands, I think this is a solid album, but not enough for me to say I fully love what she’s doing here. I am, however, excited to see where she goes with this formula next, and I hope to see Marika really take her sound and gift to the next level, artistically.
SCORE — 6.75 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Boyfriend, Good Intentions, Gina’s World, Violet, Cigarette, Time’s Been Reckless, Apple Tree, Blahblahblah, I’d Rather Be With Them