delivers another genre-bending addition to her colorful discography, as it combines irony, wit, pop whimsy and protest. On this, her seventh album, she offers listeners an opinionated and daring exploration of the dualities of human relationships, politics, love and even her own music. Here again she artfully toes the line between one genre and the next, thus bending the rules and keeping her comfortably above certain categorization, likely a blessing and a curse in equal measure. It is this tap dance around labels that McKeown indulges in, which at times causes listeners to scratch their heads and wonder what direction she and the album are headed in and perhaps even struggle to define her work for themselves.
One of McKeown's main lyrical motifs on Manifestra
is perseverance, on both macro and micro levels. With song titles like "In God We Trust," "The Politician," "The Jailer" and "Baghdad to the Bayou," one would expect an outright and outspoken attack on the status quo, and knowing McKeown's history as an activist this expectation wouldn't be far off. What's so rewarding, then, is how seamlessly she's able to merge the personal with the political, making this album a call to arms that also has softer shades that entreat all sides of the human experience. Manifestra
seems to revel in inconsistencies as its flow is marked by these shifts-- a drawing trademark of McKeown's that while abrupt is still able to maintain momentum through the end of the record. Though the shifts are many, the journey traverses jazz and improvisation, folksy rhythms and intonations and even downright catchy pop-infused romance. Shades of Ani DiFranco percolate up on the title track, which is anchored by an electric guitar line that is downright sexy and inspires hip-swaying, and the electric Rhodes, subtle synths and strings that she uses to accent the silky stratosphere of the song make it one of her most potent offerings in recent years.
"Instant Classic," a duet with Ryan Montbleau, is undoubtedly the most fun song on the album. Its somewhat corny lyrics, though, feel somewhat misplaced, and its hopeful sentimentality about a relationship neither partner saw coming make it a bit of head-scratcher, as it too readily recalls a type of homogenous romantic comedy soundtrack-ready single that feels antithetical to McKeown's folk roots. That said, after the initial shock of the seemingly trite track, it ends up morphing into quite an enjoyable experience, and it makes you wonder if the pop shine is a bone Erin is throwing to please or intrigue less discriminating ears, while tailoring the majority of her album towards richer vocals and deeper lyrics.
Though the album's asymmetrical flow add intrigue and a sense of mystery, McKeown's song placement can also feel like a mish-mash of songs than a thoroughly thought out track list at times. While her versatility is engaging and even fun, consistency speaks for itself as well. Her genre-bending is the very vehicle she uses to ease her way into listeners hearts, earning their forgiveness for the unexpected jazzy turn or catchy pop hook with a pay-off befitting the lack of attention a digital age has brought to bear, never spending enough time in any one genre to lose audience's attention. It somewhat hard to parse Manifestra
into rhythmic sections, though, as McKeown intriguingly compartmentalizes tracks to a point, never fully musically tying one to the next and keeping a somewhat imbalanced flow about things.
Against a backdrop of similar female vocalists, Manifestra
offers little in the way of groundbreaking music; however, the commercially convenient tunes and happy-go-lucky vibe that lasts throughout the album will lift listeners. Ultimately, McKeown takes us on a journey with her and extols inspirations that follow patterns as complex as the human emotions she sings about. This may not change the world of folk/pop music, but through McKeown's deft hand at flirting with different genres, all against the backdrop of solid songwriting, Manifestra
holds its own in her discography and is a great step forward for her.