For over ten years, Elisa Flynn has been one of the most spellbinding and distinctive voices in New York music. Her songs are rich with history. They sparkle with images and tackle some heavy questions. Her melodies range from moody Radiohead complexity, to scruffy indie vignettes, to stark detours toward noir cabaret and 19th century art-song. Flynn’s vocals – full, meticulously modulated, often soaring, sometimes wrenchingly plaintive – are the shiraz that fuels the narratives on her latest album The World Has Ever Been on Fire, streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing Picasso Machinery, 43 Broadway at Wythe in South Williamsburg on April 27 at around 9 PM.
On the new record, Flynn is a one-woman orchestra, playing all the: guitars, banjo and drums. The Ballad of Richie and Margot rocks pretty hard, with a dreampop edge: spare, emphatic verse, big enveloping vintage Sonic Youth chorus, bitingly crescendoing stadium-rock guitar solo in the middle. She builds hypnotically ringing, pulsing grey-sky ambience with variations on a catchy, simple guitar hook in Before He Went Down – its doomed storyline ends suddenly, yet in the exact place where it makes sense.
Flynn picks out a spiky, distantly Middle Eastern-tinged vamp as Lost in the Woods shuffles along. “Maybe I’ll be addicted to those sleeping pills as well,”she muses in Syd, a catchy, darkly watery anthem. Paula Carino comes to mind: “I can only write these words in a kind of a trance…I can only feel like a girl when my lips are far too red.”
With its lush bed of multitracked, clanging guitars, the distantly tango-inflected escape anthem Wolves echoes the gloomy, anthemic intensity of Timber, the standout track on Flynn’s 2008 album Songs About Birds and Ghosts. The slowly swaying 6/8 ballad Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument – inspired by the Fort Greene memorial to the legions of US Revolutionary War soldiers who died in British captivity – is the album’s majestic centerpiece, a grim conflagration scenario. “Would you lend me your hand to climb out of the hold?” Flynn asks: the answer is all the more shattering for being left unsaid. It might be the single best song of 2018.
Veronica rises from a spare, rustic, allusively blue-infused one-chord banjo tune to a big, echoey, crashing full-band crescendo. The chiming, echoing No Diamond is even more hypnotic, an allusively wintry tableau capped off by an unexpectedly roaring guitar outro.
Sugar has a stomping, vamping mid-80s Throwing Muses vibe. The album winds up with Caution, a guarded love song that begins as a solo banjo number and then morphs into swirling, pouncing trip-hop. The contrast between sharp, translucent tunesmithing, Flynn’s enigmatic images and her strong, forceful vocals make this one of the best rock albums of 2018.
Fun fact: Flynn was a founding member of cult favorite kitchen-sink noiserockers Bunny Brains!