I discovered Regina Spektor just before the release of Begin To Hope, an album that will always evoke the carefree, anticipatory days of the summer following my high school graduation. It quickly became one of my favorite records, and I delved further back into her discography to see how she has changed as a songwriter. The jazzy 11:11 was a staggering achievement for a twenty year old ("Braille" is still perhaps her most beautiful song), and her next LP Songs put her quirkiness and range on full display. The brilliant Soviet Kitsch, her first major release, marked the first time she integrated other instruments and higher production values into her music, though most of the tracks still featured just her voice and her piano.
2006's Begin To Hope continued that trend, with fewer piano-only tracks and more post-production effects. It still felt like a very personal work, however, with Spektor's unclassifiable and widely divergent styles somehow forming a cohesive whole. I went to see her in concert in 2006 and 2007, where she played heavily from this album -- and where I discovered that she is, unsurprisingly, one of those rare artists who manages to sound even better onstage than in the studio.
At the '07 concert, she played a few songs that were as yet unreleased, including a beautiful piano ballad called "One More Time with Feeling" that brought tears to the eyes of more than one audience member. When I found out this track was to appear on her 2009 album, Far, I was ecstatic -- but the finished product from the studio did not even feature a piano and was a complete departure in tone from the version she had been playing live. It sounded hokey, saccharine, and inauthentic to my ears, and it wasn't the album's only misstep ("Machine"). Though some tracks on Far are among Spektor's best work ("Genius Next Door," "Eet," "Dance Anthem of the '80s"), the album felt just a bit unsatisfying overall. Crucially, there was a bland feeling to some songs that suggested too many cooks in the kitchen, an overabundance of producers trying to make Spektor's offbeat style more accessible.
When a friend offered me a ticket to see Regina the day after my college graduation this year (after changing universities and career paths), I happily accepted, but I was somewhat less excited about the show than I had been five or six years ago. Far was not a bad album by any means, but after her previous work, it had left a slightly sour taste in my mouth. Thankfully, her new material sounded incredible, and I immediately fell back in love with her. (It felt like a rather poetic way to bookend my college experience, seeing her just as I began six years ago and then the day after I finally finished.) This album is more than a return to form; it represents Regina's most vulnerable and mature work to date. It feels as if the charming oddball of 2002's Songs met the high production values of 2009's Far and the best parts of both emerged from the meeting. Songs like "Small Town Moon" and "Patron Saint" are vintage Regina at her best; "Firewood" and "How" are rousing, gorgeous ballads profound in their simplicity; "All the Rowboats" and "The Party" feature some of her characteristically unorthodox vocal techniques (beatboxing, buzzing, humming), and "Open" contains some programmatic gasping for air in a suffocating room. "Jessica" is a marvelous folk guitar gem, and the outstanding "Ballad of a Politician," a crafty indictment of corporate power politics, is perhaps the darkest song Spektor has released.
I'm not sure if the remake of "Ne Me Quitte Pas" really adds anything to her original piano recording -- I can see this updated version becoming somewhat grating after a few listens -- but that is the only weak spot, and to those unacquainted with Songs, this may be a welcome introduction to a fun track. What We Saw from the Cheap Seats is a tour de force, Spektor's most solid, intelligent release yet. She is still the same fiery singer-songwriter we fell in love with, but she is done with frivolity now; this album is collectively more moving and thoughtful than any of her previous, already brilliant releases. Though she is effectively a seasoned veteran on tour, Regina Spektor is only 32 years old. If she continues to evolve creatively while never losing sight of her roots as an endearing, uncompromising, scarily intelligent, fearlessly unconventional ingenue, we can look forward to even bigger and better things from her. Hats off to a true original, one of the most gifted musicians of our time. Spasiba, Regina!