Mackenzie Scott, the songwriter who records as Torres, operates in a primal realm where memories, scars, traumas and new sensations are all still raw. “Sprinter,” her second album, confronts relationships past and present, in songs that sound bravely open, even if it’s not immediately clear what’s on her mind. Her music is blunt, mercurial rock; it can smolder while she considers exactly where she stands, and it can roar into feedback-edged howls when her rage or despair boil over. “If you do not know the darkness, then you’re the one I fear the most,” she warns after an overpowering buildup in “New Skin.”
Born in Georgia and now based in Brooklyn, Torres chose seasoned British collaborators for her studio band. Her drummer and co-producer is Rob Ellis, who worked with PJ Harvey, as did her bassist, Ian Oliver; Adrian Utley from Portishead joins her on guitar. The musicians firm up and extend the dynamics that were churning on Torres’ self-titled 2013 debut album. There’s a sinewy indie-rock band at the core of the songs, while other sounds often emerge from shadowy fringes.
Torres sings about struggling for and against the Baptist faith she grew up in, about the bonds and tensions of friends and family, about isolation and about something like romance.
The title song of “Sprinter,” a march through gusts of guitar distortion, revisits childhood lessons in church and comes to an ambiguous realization: “There’s freedom to/ And freedom from,” she sings, “And freedom to run/ From everyone.”
In “Ferris Wheel,” a slow waltz floating in an echoey haze, she sings about an evasive friend and how she longs “to show you that I’ve got the sadness too.” The album’s finale, “The Exchange,” is even quieter: It’s just Torres with a squeaky acoustic guitar, thinking about her parents and about mortality: “Mother, Father, I’m under water,” she sings, almost tearfully, “and I don’t think you can pull me out of this.”
But the tone of Torres’ songs isn’t self-pitying; it’s more a matter of attentiveness, of recognizing consequences. And partway through the album, she steps away from the personal to the oracular, with lyrics that aren’t easily parsed. In “Son, You Are No Island,” warns a young man about his immaturity in geographical imagery, within a patient drone that ripples and thickens. And “A Proper Polish Welcome” interweaves ancestry and mythology, imagining “Pale legs straddling the sea.” What’s going on isn’t clear, but the passion is unmistakable.
Jon Pareles, New York Times News Service