Stop for a second and think about death.
Not as an abstraction that at some point in the future is going to happen to you and everyone you know. Instead, consider that, one day, after one final breath, it will all be over. Maybe the end will come horrifically and instantly in a car crash or a plane wreck. Perhaps it will be drawn-out and painful after a terminal-cancer diagnosis. Will the last thing you see be a bunch of strangers as you lie on the pavement surrounded by paramedics? Or will you be comforted by family and friends in a hospital bed as you quietly slip away?
However it’s going to happen, the finality of it all is enough to drive you crazy. And to acknowledge that reality helps you to gain some valuable perspective on Sprinter, the bold, brilliant, and emotionally devastating second album by Brooklyn-based Torres.
An ominous darkness hangs over the record, which makes perfect sense when you learn that the artist born Mackenzie Scott went through some heavy stuff over the past couple of years. One of her big struggles was with the idea of faith, which was complicated by her upbringing in the Southern Baptist church. Even more overwhelming was an ongoing obsession with her mortality.
Reached in New York City on her cellphone, Torres suggests that a crippling fixation on dying not only coloured the writing of Sprinter, but continues to affect her on a daily basis. She’s seriously thought about how, one day, she is going to die.
“That was one of my main struggles, and still is—I’m not going to say that I’m any better now with that aspect of life,” she says, speaking from her practice space. “What horrified me was that everyone around me—all claiming the same faith, claiming the same god—all told me that they weren’t afraid of death because they knew where they were going. I thought, ‘My God, really? You’re not afraid of dying and you’re okay with it?’ Because I’m horrified. I’m so afraid of death that I just want to die and get it over with. It’s like it’s so horrifying that I don’t want to sit around anticipating it. You know what I mean?”
For some, embracing religion takes the fear out of dying. The idea of heading into the abyss doesn’t seem so bad if you’re convinced there’s something better on the other side.
But imagine no longer having the afterlife to hang on to. Sprinter, which was produced by Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey, Cold Specks) drops plenty of hints that Torres went through some big changes after the release of her self-titled debut album in 2013. That’s made clear almost off the top with the slow-building, guitar-powered marvel “New Skin”, in which she sings, “Lay off me would you?/I’m just trying to take this new skin for a spin/Pray for me would you?”
What follow are songs that, in the tradition of Nirvana’s great In Utero, manage to be incredibly personal, yet seem to speak to something bigger. Four-and-a-half minutes of wraithlike strings and soft-venom vocals, the tension-dripping “Son, You Are No Island” shifts suddenly from modern scripture (“Son you are no river/Your currents don’t run steady as she goes”) to explosive indictment (“Son you’re not a man yet/You fucked with a woman who would know/I would know/I would know/I would know”). The smouldering metal-heart ballad “Ferris Wheel” ends with Torres intoning, “There’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do/To show you that I’ve got the sadness too.”
Torres acknowledges that Sprinter found her working some things out.
“There was a cataclysmic event in that everything in my life changed all at once,” Torres reveals. “All the small details of my life shifted at once.”
Those events included graduating from college, touring for the critically lauded Torres, and moving to New York from Nashville.
“All these small changes affected the way that I see things—it affected my entire headspace,” she says. “The next year or so after college I wrestled so much with spirituality. I think I just got more overwhelmed than I had ever been with all of these questions that no human has answers to.
“And that,” Torres continues after a pause, “was eating me alive. It became very clear to me that if I didn’t change my perspective a little bit—or, rather, widen it—that it was going to kill me. Spiritual turmoil—and I don’t want to go too far into it—causes physical illness. I was depressed. I don’t know if you’ve read the book Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, but I was basically Franny. I was very unwell.”
We have choices when we struggle with mental illness. Rather than embracing the darkness, Torres chose to start talking to people and reading, which helped pull her out of a downward spiral. She then channelled her turmoil into what’s going to be remembered as one of the great records of the year. Bringing to mind the calm after a horrible storm, Sprinter ends on an almost whispered note with “The Exchange”, which is only Torres and her guitar, recorded outside, under a tree with birds singing in the background. The singer spends seven-and-a-half astonishing minutes putting the story of her adoptive mom—who was also adopted—to hushed acoustic guitar. “The Exchange” has no shortage of amazing lines, but stop and think, in particular, about the power of “Mother, father, I’m under water/And I don’t think you can pull me out of this,” and, even more tellingly, “I will no longer claim to know/Where we go when it’s time to go.”
That’s the problem with thinking about death. Think too much about what awaits you somewhere down the road, and it will drive you mad. Torres understands.
“Mortality is still on the forefront for me,” she says simply. “I’ve always had that preoccupation, always been aware of it. As a kid I would have panic attacks at night because of mortality. I’ve always thought about it. But these last couple of years, it’s like it’s really sunk in.”
Torres plays Electric Owl on Sunday (May 17).