Nicole Atkins Talks Speedy Ortiz’s Foil Deer

With its wit and melancholy, Speedy Ortiz’s new album is the sound of a woman stomping the sad feelings and then wearing them like a badge of honor.

There’s a thing about suburban living. The darker corners of the cul-de-sacs. The forced smiles through the mundanity of the dream of a normal family life, now realized as a giant letdown. The high school wounds that, no matter how far removed you get from them, are always with you. Speedy Ortiz singer-guitarist Sadie Dupuis comes on as a girl who is older and wiser, but never forgets — and is ready to burn the fucker down.

Over the menacing and triumphant buildup of the intro “Good Neck,” she warns, “Watch your back, because baby’s so good with the blade,” before she and her bandmates (guitarist Devin McKnight, bassist Darl Ferm, drummer Mike Falcone) plunge in on full-on attack mode, clashing and dancing in wall-melting fashion before opening up for Dupuis’s plaintive storytelling. Foil Deer feels like a girl finally coming to terms with who she is and what’s happened to her, and she’s owning it. Dupuis makes it known straight from the beginning that she is in control: “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss,” she proclaims on “Raising the Skate.” It sounds like it’s sung straight in the face of someone she’s putting in their place, a casualty of their own narcissism, someone who can’t fucking touch her at this point.

There are the obvious ’90s influences which everyone is well aware of when it comes to Speedy Ortiz, but I feel like Foil Deer takes what the band’s predecessors, like Pavement, Archers of Loaf and Belly, accomplished musically and expands it, making it very much Speedy Ortiz’s own sound. It’s the musical equivalent of a ride on Six Flags’ El Toro: guitars sling you around into a tizzy until you feel like you can’t take it anymore before lovingly rocking you with the narcotic embrace of the low end. Every single emotion shows in Dupuis’ elastic and magnetic voice — and her vocal melodies, even if they aren’t echoing the guitar lines, still sound like melodies written for guitar, each line mixing and swirling, skipping around the scales, becoming one before lovingly falling to pieces.

On “My Dead Girl,” the music is cinematic, like a funeral song where the camera slowly pans over the faces of mourners crying in the rain. A vision of inevitable doom while Sadie croons poison spells to the kids who peaked in high school.

My personal favorite on Foil Deer is “Mister Difficult.” The lyrics suggest that playing rough is Dupuis’ way of trying to be just one of the guys, or maybe it’s just easier to be that way rather than being vulnerable and just admitting you like someone. I could be totally off-base here, trying to interpret the lyrics, but that’s what it means to me. Also, when I like a song enough, it always becomes about me anyway. All I know is, I could listen to this song on a rainy day on repeat in bummed-out bliss all day long.

“Dot X” comes on with a chime of dissonant guitars before easing into a sinister stomp. In a Something Wicked This Way Comes style, Dupuis warns the listener not to “touch her blade,” not to “touch her ring,” and not to “touch her kid,” or “be cursed for a lifetime.” With every listen to this song I keep changing my mind: is she the cold kidnapper in this tale, or the victim who has the power to turn the tables?

Dupuis deals with rejection, death-obsession, being “the best at second-best,” drugs, escapism, taking things a little too far, and maybe being a little bit too hard on herself, with one of the most unusual, cool and cryptic writing styles in alternative rock today. She writes with wicked wit and melancholy in equal measure. Such as in “Homonovus,” a tale of the illusion of familiar normalcies being stripped of their appeal and shown for the disappointments they can really be: “And I’ll be better than I was alone/And you’ll be better than you were alone/Isn’t it a charmed life grinning under harsh light?” she sings. Or in “Swell Content,” where she ruminates about a college rejection with wry humor: “I have been rejected for semesters at sea/Pasting up the walls, should’ve gone for a tapestry/I am not averse to getting salt in my face/Let me marinate a week and reevaluate.”

Just reading Dupuis’ lyrics is as much of an emotional experience as listening to the music. And that’s the main thing I love about this album: a lot of the time it’s not what she’s saying but the way the melody bends the words into an even stronger feeling. And sometimes the music is in stark contrast to the story she’s telling. And it’s done honestly — there aren’t any smartypants tricks employed here. The production is polished, more so on the electro-tinged “Puffer,” but in no way strips the band of its playfulness or Sadie’s vocals of their intimacy. The bombast on these tracks make me excited to hear this album played live.

Foil Deer is the sound of a girl stomping the sad feelings with a steel-toed boot and then wearing them like a badge of honor. It’s also an early chapter of a band finding their own unique voice while paying their respects to the indie heroes who have come before them. You can’t forget the past, but you can learn from it, and ultimately make it your bitch.

Nicole Atkins is an Asbury Park, NJ-based rock singer, songwriter, producer and comic illustrator. She also dabbles in the dark arts. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram