Review | Alexandra Savior — The Archer
On her second album, Portland native Alexandra Savior skilfully weaves emotionally-naked narratives of love and loss to a backdrop of lush, retro arrangements.
“Soft Currents”, the opening track to Oregon singer-songwriter Alexandra Savior’s latest album The Archer, carries more than a slight resemblance to another recent opening track: the title track of megastar Lana Del Rey’s 2019 career high-point Norman Fucking Rockwell. Like the latter track, “Soft Currents” centres around a slow, slight, minor-key piano framing soft, mournful, hazy vocals. Like Del Rey’s song, it is a simple statement of being let down in love — when Savior sings “I’ve had seven years of bad luck” she sounds disappointed, but not exactly surprised. Her emotional awareness is on display with the line “my fate is in your hands without you even trying”, but awareness of this flaw unfortunately isn’t always accompanied by the power to change it, as is made evident here as her honey-sweet croon glides between notes with a fragility that mirrors the lyrics.
Like Del Rey's oeuvre, most of the songs on The Archer concern romantic obsession and loss, but there is likely more context at play - after the release of her 2017 debut album Belladonna of Sadness, Savior was dropped as an artist by her record label Columbia, who she describes as taking a “young and naive” artist and trying to mould her into something more “sellable”. The Archer’s overwhelming existential angst is likely due to this as much as any romantic failures. When discussing her inspiration for this second album, twenty-four-year-old Savior has stated that
“I wrote from a place of being rejected and confused, insecure and angry and depressed. But I was writing about me, and I think creatively there was a weight lifted off of me and I feel like so much has opened up to me.”
Belladonna Of Sadness emphasized slow, tripped-out desert rock to provide a backdrop to Savior’s breathy crooning, and The Archer’s second track “Saving Grace” harks back to that previous album, bringing back the full band. The single is classic Savior - all hypnotic grooves and slinking guitar lines reminiscent of spaghetti westerns and James Bond themes. While it doesn’t advance the formula too much, it’s a fine addition to her repertoire.
On Belladonna… Savior collaborated with Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner to write and record an album of songs seemingly inspired by ‘60s baroque pop artists like Nancy Sinatra and Scott Walker, as well as Turner’s own side-project The Last Shadow Puppets (who co-wrote their track “Miracle Aligner” with Savior in 2015). The combination of Turner’s extensive songwriting experience with Savior’s own considerable skills, not to mention her ultra-cool femme fatale vibe, worked perfectly, with tracks like “Shades”, “Girlie”, and “Mystery Girl” putting Savior on the map as an artist to watch.
With Turner’s guidance absent from The Archer, it would be too easy to expect a Difficult Second Album that either limply rehashes the sound of Savior’s debut, or takes a career-ending left-turn. Luckily, that is not the case here — Savior’s songwriting talents prove to be more than strong enough to stand on their own without the assistance of more experienced industry veterans, and The Archer both matches and builds upon its predecessor. Turner’s influence is still detectable, however, with the album’s languid vibes, spacey production and B-movie synth motifs evoking Arctic Monkeys’ 2018 album Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino. The Archer is no radical stylistic departure from its predecessor — rather it slows things down a little more and makes the atmosphere slightly thicker and smokier and the lyricism more penetrating.
Single “Crying All the Time” employs piercing squalls of guitar over a slow groove and Savior’s vocals, which follow the sweetly-innocent-yet-with-a-hint-of-menace vibe typified by Nancy Sinatra in the ‘60s and Lana Del Rey in the ‘10s. However, Savior’s style doesn’t merely mimic this well-trodden template - it displays a calm confidence and an eye for detail that elevate it above similarly dark and sultry Americana throwbacks. The production by Sam Cohen is gorgeous, with swirling guitars and reverb-drenched backing vocals that evoke cigarette smoke hazes, doomed romances, and Californian sunsets. The simple-yet-disarming lyrical hook “he doesn’t like it when I cry” sums up the album’s sense of unease and ambiguity and themes of emotional dependency and control.
The instrumentation is a little more diverse than before. The increased use of synths on this album does nothing to detract from the retro, film-noir aesthetic retained from Belladonna... Single “Howl” features a warm analogue synth motif that perfectly compliments the layered, ethereal vocals and the loose funkiness of the rhythm section. “Send Her Back” also displays the increased sense of groove on the album, with horn stabs punctuating the track and giving a sense of menace to a song about jealousy, betrayal, and the dark side of love. The gorgeous twinkling synths and warm pianos of “Can’t Help Myself” represent pure aural bliss and surrender to romantic and sensory devotion. “The Phantom” and “Bad Disease” are classic psychedelic surrealism in lyrics as well as sound:
“All alone at his golden temple, dusting of crumb falls at his feet, from the time when my greedy mantle, I've come here to take my crackerjack tree”
“The ground he walks upon resigns to dust, pandemonium quivers at his touch”
The only problem with the consistently impressive cohesion of the album’s sound is that, particularly in the second half, the songs have a tendency to blur into each other a little (although this effect isn’t particularly unwelcome on such a hazy and ethereal collection). Despite this, the transition from “But You”’s cinematic sci-fi synths and achingly romantic, heart-on-sleeve longing to closer “The Archer”’s stripped-back arrangement and downbeat melancholy, which references a lover who “ate me right up” and “spit me back out”, is particularly effective. On Belladonna’s “Cupid”, Savior depicted the titular mythical figure as a threat (“Cupid shoots to kill”), and “The Archer” expands on this theory: "don't need to tell you but your arrow's made of stars / and the shot that you've made punched it straight into my heart".
The title track seems to serve as an elegy for each relationship - emotional and professional - lost in the three years since Belladonna of Sadness. On The Archer, Alexandra Savior has managed to turn her losses into beauty and articulate emotion with a skill that eludes many other similar songwriters, and she has done it with no small amount of style and cool.
Best songs: Soft Currents, Crying All the Time, Howl, The Archer
Worst song: Bad Disease