Let’s go back the 1990s, which fairly or otherwise is going to follow Massachusetts’ Speedy Ortiz all over the rock press. I’ll be quick. Economically we were doing great. We were building some righteous dotcoms and inflating the digital balloon. The president played saxophone and enjoyed a puerile sex scandal. Our foreign “enemies” were more like pests, and Seinfeld finally made detached irony prosperous. Pig heaven it was, wish you were there.
The post-Nevermind gold rush split the music audience into two factions: those who enjoyed the commercially successful misapplication of the grunge “ideal,” whatever the hell that was, and those who ran for the hills. It’s that second group we’re discussing at the moment, because the music they made during that time has never truly been duplicated. In fact, there’s hardly a real nostalgia for that era of music. Nostalgia was probably the last thing on the bands’ minds. There was cleverness and grinning insolence in bands like Pavement, the Breeders and Dinosaur Jr. that sometimes — sometimes — put them at an emotional distance.
Speedy Ortiz songwriter Sadie Dupuis had to be a child when these songs came out; she came to understanding them from the future. She’s been working toward an MFA in poetry, which refutes the slacker cliché of ‘90s music the media loves to memorialize. The band’s first notable single, last year’s “Taylor Swift,” was a savage satire mocking the singer’s convoluted, infamous boy troubles, with Dupuis going so far as to sing it in an over-the-top Southern accent the real Swift doesn’t actually have.
Major Arcana keeps a lot of Dupuis’ provocation and links it to the paintbrushes of music from 20 years ago. But Speedy Ortiz extracts something different from that time. Over 10 songs in 35 compact minutes, Dupuis challenges the inefficiency of breaking relationships, defies the bloated glory of martyrdom, deals with blasé artisans and spastic exes and, in key moments, turns the camera on herself.
“My mouth is a factory for every toxic part of speech I spew,” Dupuis sings in “Tiger Tank.” She dissects her face and guts to figure out how they’re making her act out. It’s uncomfortable, especially as Dupuis and Matt Robidoux face off against each other on guitar in opposing stereo channels. Notes churn and bend with the slightest anxious detuning, then explode in distortion. But as cutting as Dupuis is on herself, “Tiger Tank” isn’t steeped in misery. It comes off like an action plan.
The guitars on Major Arcana are pretty brilliant. Dupuis and Robidoux twist intricate lines that owe as much to Marquee Moon as Slanted and Enchanted. They squeeze a lot from a pure compositional standpoint: There’s just enough rubbery bows to suggest an unsteady drift, enough sharp melodies to support the tone, and enough contained bomb blasts to spit fury as needed. If Dupuis’ lyrics get drowned at points, the guitars match their tartness step for step, expressing the same level of nerve.
The sour lyrics aren’t necessarily put-downs as much as censures against people who fall short of certain standards that, honestly, sound perfectly reasonable to me. And they cover several disciplines. There’s “Gary,” a half-cocked artist Dupuis can’t abide by: “I have seen the art of my stupid counterpart/The proportion’s wrong.” But still, his “prints get made,” although she imagines he tortures himself in spite of all the commerce: “Do you lock your door? Do you lay down on your carpet?”
The hilarious “Plough” dresses down a boyfriend, but again, it’s more because he’s being a twit than “you picked a virgin over me!” When she just decides to abandon the situation, man-child goes ballistic: “He grounded out, and that was enough/I flipped towards the door but he was freaking the fuck out/Stop shaking, ‘cause you’re freaking the fuck out/You’d better stop ‘cause you’re freaking me out.” It should be noted that each time she sings the word “fuck” in this line, it’s in a lilting, angelic soprano voice. The rest of it is at ground, no-bullshit level. These telling touches are all over.
As cocky and critical as Dupuis gets on Major Arcana, it’s the moments of self-admission that give her reproaches context. “I want to be with somebody just like me,” she says in “Cash Cab,” “someone who laughs at a crash car rental.” The album’s most startling moment is, not surprisingly, its quietest. “No Below” slows down as Dupuis traces the source of her disdain back to an awkward childhood and a friendly connection she never made. “You didn’t know me but he knew me best/The weight of my pride and the fear of my cold head.”Dupuis projects that he was growing up cold as well, and that for whatever reason — maybe just inconvenience — they couldn’t get together: “You might have said I was better off as being dead/But I’m looking out for you, my friend.” It’s the one friendship on the album that hasn’t dissolved into cynicism. Of course, that’s because it never existed outside of dreams.
That’s where Speedy Ortiz brushes off the whole ‘90s thing. Dupuis’ broken narrative spells out her placement in her age, and outside of Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville there wasn’t a storyline quite like that in the ‘90s. There’s a budding maturity in the singer’s voice, but it’s coming more from the realization that she needs to find an alternative to the absurdity she’s had to put up with so far. The crunching music behind her is as changing, wavering and determined as she is. It’s got a point and a direction to go, and Speedy Ortiz sounds like they’ll pursue it in spite of the risk. “I’ve limped before,” Dupuis sings as she’s thrown into the “Tiger Tank,” dismemberment a near certainty. “I can limp again.”
Paul Pearson is a writer, journalist, and interviewer who has written for Treble since 2013. His music writing has also appeared in The Seattle Times, The Stranger, The Olympian, and MSN Music.