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April 12, 2016

TEST SPINS: Frankie Cosmos — Next Thing

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The universe of NYU student Greta Kline’s DIY indie rock project Frankie Cosmos is a warm, velvety one, in which a healthy suspicion of reality and adulthood, and a relentless concern (as playful as it is pulsing) with the personal, the intimate and the female, reigns artistically. Next Thing is a narrative exploration of the love, intimacy, anxiety, dreams and desires that come with being a young person in the world: subjects which Kline first excavated on 2014’s Zentropy, as well as her massive portfolio of Bandcamp-released music.

My knee-jerk reaction was that the album sounded identical to Zentropy. However, after a full listen of Next Thing, judging the album’s fundamental sonic and sensual similarity to much of Kline’s previous work seems about as productive as noting that the chapters of a novel, or stanzas of a poem are written in the same style, and follow the same story, of the same deeply compelling character.

This reaction reframed as an open-minded observation arguably reveals the greatest strengths (and potentially the titular inspiration) of Next Thing. The album has all of the wit and wisdom, aerial emotionality (heart-shredding/melting disclosures disguised by their cute rhyming quality), particular relatability and intimacy for young women listeners and formidable poetic, vocal and instrumental skill of Kline’s previous work. However, this record is so clearly a next thing; an unfolding, a thickening: the songs bear a new emotional girth, self-awareness and confidence in what Kline has to say.

This praise might sound patronizing coming from someone in the exact same set of years, but I, perhaps more than anyone, have the perspective to recognize that Kline is artistically reckoning with, and giving meaning to difficult, ambiguous and complicated experiences: ones which I often only have the emotional clarity to resonate with and point to in art, saying, “Yes, that. I feel that.” To do this is her immense gift, and she does it more thoughtfully and eloquently than ever over the 15 tracks of Next Thing.

Whatever this quality of Next Thing is that I am trying to get at, I’m resisting calling it “growth” or “maturity,” because to call it that would be to assume that Kline needs to “grow up” to make good music. This kind of “new maturity” praise that often litters sophomore album reviews (I at least, am guilty of it) seems entirely backwards to me, given that it is Kline’s particular youthful vulnerability and perspective that give her empathetic and emotional access to the kind of truths she is telling and the confessions she is making. The readiness with which she opens herself, her sense of artistic humility, her uncensored candidness, her bold sincerity and the colorful, daydreaming imagination and sense of reverie which she imbues her music with, are all because of her young femaleness — not in spite of it. Frankie Cosmos’ narrative and emotional power is not wisdom beyond her years, but rather of her years. And so, I think Cosmos has perfectly titled this piece of music with her signature, marvelous anti-grandeur — the next thing in her career, in her life, in this story.

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COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES

This chapter of her work is a series of fragmented vignettes, with each song less than three minutes and the whole album clocking in at 28. In the brief empty space on almost every track, Kline rapidly renders a vivid emotional experience or observation: always affecting, sometimes frank and crisply naked, other times cosmic, elusive and abstract. The brevity of each track makes the album one that requires a somewhat keen ear and relative concentration. Treated as background music, and without attention to the stories she tells, the tracks instrumentally blend together, using similar understated acoustic structures, while each is lyrically and emotionally distinct.

Next Thing is extremely external, visual and sincere, flipping the respectability politics of indie rock coolness in apathy, distance, austerity and metaphorical grandeur, ever-so-refreshingly, on their head. The details and richness of her lyrics utilize the quotidian, idiosyncratic details: bad coffee, subway transfers, a bug on one’s ear, backseats in New Mexico, boots kicked off, chips at a rest stop, reading Sappho, watching David Blaine, bug bites on vacation, free corporate pens. The weight of each track on Next Thing usually falls all at once, with the seemingly lackadaisical drop of an arresting image, confession or observation, which explodes the song into animated reality. She is not afraid to express herself in casual terms, from the hip, almost childlike in their clarity: “Once I was happy / I found it intriguing … You make me feel like a fool / Waiting for you” (“Fool”); “is it possible that I really miss you / or am I pissed at you” (“Sleep Song / Is It Possible”); “I drink bad coffee / hope that you’ll call me” (“Too Dark”).”

However, her words can be just as intricate, esoteric and dreamlike, as they can be grounded and self-evident. On “Floated In,” she dreams of a lover or a friend whom she would love to “rummage through / your pink silky space cap,” while on “Sappho” she muses about existential disappearance and instability — “Under the crack in the door / can you tell I have no floor / I’m not ground in nothing / nothing” — and attests to her own perversity on “Sinister”: “My soul is not like a waterpark / It’s big but surprisingly dark.”

Although almost all the tracks have a light, airy quality, there is often an internal sadness and brutal candor weighing them down: never mourning, just truth. Next Thing is deeply honest about romantic humiliation, disappointment and failure. “Too Dark” bludgeons with the line “If your love was as strong as my shame / I’d marry you and take your name” externalizing the agony of imbalanced love. Much more subtle but just as cutting amidst all the velvet and clouds, Kline evokes the smaller, stranger forms of romantic discomfort, and frustrated ambitions and expectations on “Fool,” “Sappho” and “On The Lips,” and messy romantic apathy on “O Dreaded C Town.”

Another motif on the album, endemic to Frankie Cosmos as a creator, is her quiet resistance of the pressure to participate in the project of growing up: to give up or get over particular youthful emotional modes like being sad and mad on “If I Had A Do,” (“Am I still so sad? / I guess that’s pretty lame”), feeling out of control or crying when it feels like there are no answers. She lets herself be bummed and confused, and seems to both challenge and reflect on expectations surrounding youth, observing skeptically, “when you’re young / you’re too young / when you’re old / you’re too old” (“What If”).

On a lighter side of an album which quietly covers an astonishing emotional range — from depressive and dark to giddy and playful — it is fun to mine Next Thing for familiar characters from the scene Kline travels in. “Embody” is an ode to the “grace and lightness” she admires in women around her, in which she lists Gabby Smith of Eskimeaux, Emily Sprague of Florist and an anonymous Sarah. “We’ll all embody all the grace and lightness,” she says, making me feel admittedly a deep shade of warm and fuzzy inside to hear this celebration of the rad group of women amidst which she is creating.

Next Thing listens like a road narrative; perpetually offering hints of travel and transience: hers are the reflections of a girl sitting in a van, with her hand out the window, wandering around rest stops, weird neighborhoods and cities she doesn’t know. These imagined environments of displacement and impermanence are the perfect scenery of Next Thing’s blurry intensities; Kline’s trains of thought go in and out of focus, just like the picture outside her window. As she takes in the adventure of her life and reckons to the new intimacies and experiences it brings, Kline feels it all with the magnified intensity of a young person. To her, everything means something, no matter how quiet, small or simple.

Jael Goldfine is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jgoldfine@cornellsun.com.

One thought on “TEST SPINS: Frankie Cosmos — Next Thing

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