I wish I could begin this review by calling Kimbra something like ‘pop sensation’ or ‘acclaimed songstress’. Despite two Grammy awards (making her the third New Zealand artist to win the award) for featuring on a multi-platinum single and amassing a generous amount of listeners and praise from her own music, she’s remained fairly overlooked by the pop music scene at large.
In a perfect world, the New Zealand singer-songwriter’s third album, ‘Primal Heart’, would change all that. Clearly, our world is just a tad bit away from perfection, so I’m not holding my breath that this album will garner the mass acclaim it deserves. But the fact that it does deserve such acclaim is something to talk about. This album is fantastic – by far her best. It’s everything great about pop music wrapped up in a tight 44 minutes, not at all leaning towards too long or short. It’s a testament to the ability of this genre to be exceptionally emotionally compelling and still remain undeniably infectious.
Lyrically, this album reads as a meditation on inner strength and empowerment, with a clear progression regarding this theme running from the first to the last track. Tracks at the beginning of the album put this strength to the forefront. ‘Everybody Knows’ is a sonically dense earworm that details the singer’s maturing following a toxic relationship, and is especially potent in the wake of the #metoo movement (“Now the whole world’s watching you”).
‘Top of the World’ is perhaps Kimbra at her most self-empowered, with the singer’s passionate and energetic vocal performance emphasizing the rise to egotism foregrounded in the lyrics. The hip-hop influences on this track – namely Kimbra’s rapping on the verses – brings out the braggadocio that develops throughout the song.
Hip-hop seems to be a vehicle for confidence in one’s self on this album, as the track ‘Human’ – the lyrical centerpiece on the album which focuses on learning one’s self-worth –features influences from the said genre in its vocal and piano samples, as well as its swaggering drum beat. Tracks bearing these influences feel far more organic than they have in the singer’s past work, and present one of the key musical features of the album most clearly – its focus on rhythm.
Right from the beginning of the first track, ‘The Good War’, the listener is hit with a stripped-back, tight percussive section topped with booming bass hits not dissimilar-sounding to a heartbeat (the first lyric of the song’s chorus seems to point towards this idea). Already, we’re seeing the album’s title come into fruition. Rhythmic strength quickly becomes a staple of the album’s sound, with the grooves featured on this album elevating its infectiousness to impressive heights. This is evidenced by moments such as the straightforward yet driving pulse backed by punchy arpeggios on ‘Black Sky’, the crisp tribal beat on ‘Top of the World’ (co-produced by Skrillex), or the heavy percussive strikes on ‘Recovery’.
Ideas from a variety of styles come together to form the main musical aesthetic of ‘Primal Heart’. The R&B and soul sounds that have been a staple of Kimbra’s music thus far are not dismissed, though they’re not as dominant as in the past. ‘Past Love’ is perhaps the only outwardly vintage-soul-inspired track on the entire album. Influences from this style are rather dispersed throughout sections of songs, such as the lead vocal melody on ‘Everybody Knows’, or the buttery synth chords leading up to the first chorus of ‘The Good Fight’.
80’s electropop is a style referred to on multiple occasions throughout the album, manifesting itself most clearly through the throbbing synthesizers on tracks such as ‘Lightyears’ and ‘Like They Do On the TV’. It’s not the singer at her most innovative or unique in terms of instrumentals, but even the more by-the-numbers moments on the album are still immensely catchy and are made compelling by Kimbra’s fantastically unique voice.
The diverse array of styles and musical ideas woven into these songs makes the album feel texturally rich and intricate. The overall sound of the album is one that is forward-thinking, despite its ‘throwback’ qualities. On ‘Primal Heart’, Kimbra achieves what I believe her music has always been leading to – a well-crafted revitalization of the sounds of popular music from the past from a contemporary perspective (with the aforementioned tribal grooves that appear here and there, you could say she’s travelling further back in time than she ever has to collect these sounds).
The album seems to become more mellow both rhythmically and lyrically as it progresses, as a more vulnerable side of Kimbra seems to become more apparent on tracks in the record’s latter half, such as the gorgeous ballad ‘Right Direction’. The album’s penultimate track, ‘Version of Me’, feels almost Radiohead-inspired in both its chord progression and deeply intimate piano/strings/vocals-instrumentation, and sees the singer reflecting on her fragility and promising a loved one that she is striving toward improving herself through a delicate and moving vocal performance.
‘Real Life’, the album’s closer, features robotic backing vocals as its primary instrumentation, fitting with the lyrics regarding ‘rewiring’ one’s self or their actions. It seems that on this track, Kimbra accepts that she cannot change the past (“No chance for a regret to invade”) but can rather find strength in herself (“Just keep your head up in the real life”) and push through. It’s a touching summation of the themes on the album, and feels like exactly the right place to end on musically – its bare instrumentation contrasting to where the album begins in that regard.
As I said before, ‘Primal Heart’ is Kimbra’s best album. It’s emotionally hard-hitting, musically diverse and rich, and, as a pop album should be, damn catchy. It’s every bit as powerful as it intends to be, and is a must listen for pop enthusiasts everywhere.