Release Date: May 19, 2009
Record label: Mute
Genre(s): Indie, Rock, Alternative, Singer-Songwriter
English singer/songwriter Polly Scattergood's eponymous debut oozes the kind of potential that makes one forgive the occasional misstep. Her heart is firmly sewn into her sleeve, and she details the peaks, valleys, and especially the wreckage of that muscular organ in a way that only those trapped in their self-absorbed late teens and early twenties can. Less vindictive and aloof than Lily Allen, less stylized and groomed for oblivion than Amy Winehouse, but possessing both of those artists' penchant for slick, confessional, melodic pop diatribes, Scattergood embraces the early 21st century electro-dance-pop of London proper with a voice that suggests a childhood filled with endless nights spent listening to Kate Bush, Tori Amos, and Nine Inch Nails.
You'll know within seven minutes whether you've got the stomach for Polly Scattergood, a youthful Brit School graduate with the name and appearance of a consumptive Dickensian match-girl. Opening track Hate the Way piles coy Kate Bushisms upon Prozac Nation lyrics and caps the lot with a croakily theatrical spoken-word coda. Performed alone at the piano, Scattergood's debut would be nearly unbearable (I Am Strong's ghastly self-help testimonial already is), but the widescreen production of soundtrack specialist Simon Fisher Turner goes a long way towards taking the edge off her sixth-form Plathisms ("There are lots of broken fingers in the dark part of my brain") and dignifying her emotional melodrama.
For reviewers writing about the work of new female musicians, the Kate Bush Comparison remains the laziest critical shorthand that there is, and one that’s still far too frequently wheeled out as a substitute for proper engagement with the work of a new artist. Without wishing in any way to undervalue Bush’s impact on both male and female performers, it seems that her influence may now be being overstated; this is, after all, an artist who has offered us a mere eight albums and just one tour in 30 years. The greatest sufferer from the Bush Comparison has always been Tori Amos, who, 10 albums and 1000 live shows on, still finds reviewers myopically concentrating on the superficial similarities that link her work to Bush’s rather than the massive disparities in performance style, vocal approach, lyric content, and career philosophy that differentiate them.
Reading the lyrics sheet that comes with Polly Scattergood's self-titled debut album can feel a bit like stumbling upon a stranger's cryptic yet intensely personal blog. It's all raw emotion and strident self-affirmation, but the sentiment is presented without much context or concrete detail, which makes her confessional statements come across with an awkward, anonymous intimacy. It's clear that she's spilling her guts and needs to express herself, but even at her most direct, it's difficult not to get the impression that she is keeping herself at a distance from her audience.
Now in her mid-20s, Polly Scattergood has the uneasy aura of a Lolita just past her prime. Blonde, blue-eyed, slack-jawed and (in one photo) clutching a teddy bear, she sings with a lollipop sticky innocence and indignant tweener squeaks. She sounds about 10 most of the time, and tends (creepily) to use the word “sir” when addressing adult men. But what a jaded and unsettling 10 she’s playing.