What exactly is the first clue that Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin is not a typical folk album? Maybe it’s the little warbles of bass bubbling below the surface of “Airborne Ashes,” or maybe the violins morphed into sharp stabs of electronics on “Metallic Taste of Patience,” or, if you’ve missed some of the less overt clues throughout the record, Alexandra Drewchin singing “give me that deep throat” and then shouting it back like an ad lib a la Young Thug will probably tip you off. No, Phoenix is not a typical folk album. But it is another massive leap forward for the Queens experimentalist who records under the name Eartheater.
Previous Eartheater records have been sinewy music that lived in the shadows, drawing tenuous connections between glitch, spoken word, sound collage and quietly plucked pop. On the 2019 mixtape Trinity, Drewchin even tried her hand at dance music, albeit a characteristically queasy version of it. The throughline between these works is Drewchin’s voice, a double-edged sword capable of eviscerating and decaying in the same breath.
Her weaponized voice is evident on first single “Below The Clavicle.” It’s a marvel, especially the many ways she manages to bend the title phase into a million different shapes, sometimes defiant and sometimes vulnerable. Drewchin has enough control over her voice to know when to belt and when to break, keying into the emotional responses we have to each. But no Eartheater record has revolved so heavily around Drewchin’s singing as Phoenix does. It’s a welcome shift, one that comes along with a guitar-forward sound that creeps into conventional beauty more than a few times. It turns out that the straightforward suits her well.
In theory, the image of a phoenix is the central metaphor of the record, a death and then rebirth that symbolizes… something. The lyrics here can be vague and hard to penetrate, and the phoenix is only referenced twice in songs and once in a track title. As a metaphor, a phoenix functions better as an allusion to Drewchin herself, a post-industrial act with a pop-star’s eye for reinvention. Each new Eartheater album has been used as an opportunity to try out new styles, sounds, and visuals. Just as Trinity cast her as a witch house diva, Phoenix turns her into an apocalyptic folk troubadour.
What the lyrics aren’t vague about is intimacy, clearest in standout “Volcano.” Over guitar so drenched in reverb Billy Corgan would be proud, Drewchin uses the elemental to talk about sex: “Give me that good collision to propel the peak, don’t speak, like two tectonic plates make the earth quake, let the bed rock.” Evoking Alanis Morrisette in her nostril-heavy emoting, the song sounds pulled from an MTV Unplugged set performed by an alien. It’s spectacular.
In terms of album of the year superlatives, Phoenix easily takes “most otherworldly.” At times, the heavy aesthetics and atmosphere threaten to swallow up the songwriting. But Drewchin’s magnetism takes the reins wherever it appears. Thank god it’s all over this record.